America is attempting to balance the safety of 51 million students with their social, emotional, and academic needs. In March, the pandemic forced schools across the country to transition to remote and online learning. As a result, life during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for students and parents alike. Now, both administrators and politicians must figure out how to reopen schools this fall with the pandemic still raging. As the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success at North Carolina Central University, Ontario Wooden has concerns about what returning to school is going to look like. With controversial photographs of packed hallways making the headlines, Ontario Wooden is here to highlight both sides of the issue.
Implementing Social Distancing Mandates
With only a few weeks left before the fall semester begins, many parents and educators are realizing that there are no good options for sending kids back to school. Ontario Wooden explains that while in-person classes pose safety concerns for students and teachers, remote learning will likely leave the most vulnerable students behind. Administrators must make difficult decisions without clear scientific evidence on how children might spread the disease. While masks, regular hand washing, and social distancing may limit the spread of COVID-19 among students, it is not clear whether this will be enough. In addition, roughly 28% of public school teachers are over the age of 50, making them especially vulnerable to schools re-opening.
Prolonged school closures undoubtedly exacerbate socioeconomic disparities; however, serious precautions must be put in place if schools are going to re-open. Ontario Wooden shares that every school should have established a COVID-19 task force to develop policies and procedures that will keep the safety of students and teachers in mind. Ontario offers that schools should provide educational materials and training for students, parents, and school staff on the basics of COVID-19 prevention. Another measure is providing school staff with thermometers, training them to screen for COVID-19 symptoms. Budgets for disinfection efforts need to be increased for teaching spaces, common areas, and high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, computers, and desks. Schools should also provide hand sanitizers and protective equipment. Unfortunately, cuts in school state funding make these types of costly precautions less likely.
Ontario Wooden noted that when the pandemic struck, districts around the country were still recovering from the economic losses sustained during the Great Recession, when nearly 300,000 teachers and other school staff were laid off. Administrators now have to figure out how to prioritize safety in the fall with even fewer resources, as state and local revenues have shrunk as a result of the pandemic. How can schools provide safe environments, sanitary conditions, PPE, or access to remote learning with reduced state and local funding?
The Bottom Line
Parents and administrators are understandably anxious right now. It is a feeling that Ontario Wooden knows well. Enduring the shock of sudden closures in spring, some parents may have to give up their paychecks in order to stay home and care for their children this fall — lowering income at an already financially precarious time. In addition, students who have relied on free or reduced-cost meals could go hungry if in-person classes are cancelled. At a time when parents, students, and administrators are looking for answers.