Five months into a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the question on everyone’s mind is whether we should re-open schools.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone that does not want to re-open schools. They are vital to the health and success of our kids, our families and our communities.
But equally vital questions are whether we are ready — and who should decide?
To the first question, it’s not just about infection, positivity and death rates — though none of those are moving in the right direction. It’s about whether schools have been adequately resourced and re-tooled to adapt to today’s new “normal.”
Both state and federal leaders haven’t done enough to help schools re-align their facilities and programs with the challenge of our time. There wasn’t enough support for additional buses, facilities or retrofitting the ventilation systems of classrooms. There was no massive push to get PPE or testing, contact tracing capabilities, or high-speed broadband access into every district in America.
Instead, in five months,we’ve gotten too many one size fits all tweets and vague press statements from politicians using this issue to score cheap partisan points, instead of working to make sure every kid has the same opportunity to learn this fall as the children of Washington elites.
Job one for our politicians should be to get to work helping our schools get ready — and fast. That means less talking and tweeting — and more listening and supporting the parents and professionals on the front lines.
Which brings me to the question of who should decide? Local communities should; free of politics and in close consultation with teachers, parents, public health and human service agencies. After all, we have local school boards for a reason — to make local decisions for local districts with local differences in mind. These are the people that are on the ground interacting with their communities every day.
For millions of kids, school is a not just about learning, sports and social development — it’s the one nutritious meal they may have all day, a chance for early mental health intervention, developing healthy physical habits, and the last line of defense against abuse or neglect at home. When school is not in session, our most vulnerable kids lose access to these lifelines.
The past few months have shown us that distance learning is not a panacea. It imposes unsustainable choices on working parents, particularly for families where both parents work outside the home. It isolates children and deprives them of the enrichment of extra-curricular school sanctioned activities that occur outside the classroom. And it doesn’t really work unless kids have access to computers and high-speed broadband — and too many don’t.
Local innovations and decision making can help address some of these issues. State and federal leaders should embrace and support this work, since much of it comes without an added price tag.
Some districts have forged deals with tech companies to furnish computers to kids who don’t have them. Many districts are exploring the idea of outdoor classrooms, which resolve some of the issues around ventilation and the heightened risk factors of indoor environments. In other districts, working parents are forming distance learning “pods,” that enable a different parent volunteer to work with teachers and supervise small groups of kids at their homes through their online curriculum each day of the week. This frees up more parents to go to work, lends itself to more enforceable social distancing than many public schools are currently equipped to deliver, and could make it easier to control and trace any COVID19 outbreaks.
And still others have suggested allowing their most at-risk kids back on campus first, to ensure that meals and interventions can continue unabated, without the community spread risk of having all students back on a campus that’s ill-equipped to accommodate everyone safely at once.
Obviously, none of these local innovations are preferable to having all schools ready to re-open for all students now. But we have to be honest in acknowledging where we are, and that unlike other nations that have been able to contain COVID-19, we are not yet at the same point.
As a result, we are left not with a choice of open and closed, but between bad and worse. Given the virulence and infectiousness of COVID-19, that will likely mean distance or hybrid learning over the short term. It is frustrating and not sustainable — but neither is using teachers, kids or their parents and grandparents as guinea pigs, or pretending that we are living in the public health reality of a year ago.
We must act and innovate with urgency to restore in person learning for all kids as soon as possible. All stakeholders at all levels of government must do their part to realize this vision, while empowering local decision makers and acknowledging that different districts each have distinct capabilities and risk factors.
Ultimately it’s up to all of us — state and federal leaders, parents, and other stakeholders to stand with them, model safe behavior across our community, and provide the resources that local school leaders need to realize a vision that works for their communities.
Whether we like it or not, this is one of the most pressing issues we face right now. To re-open our economy, the workers that drive it need certainty on their kids going to school, and the confidence that it is being done responsibly. Above all, it is not a time to play politics or re-litigate the scientific consensus — we’ve done enough of that already.
We must put politics aside, roll up our sleeves, and put our communities and the well-being of all of our children first.
We’ve lost five months already. We cannot afford to waste another minute.