Conflicting Moral Imperatives: Shocking Statistics about Re-Opening Schools

Susan Epstein
9 min readJun 23, 2020

By Susan Epstein, School Board Member in Santa Barbara County

- Students in isolation squares on a playground in Tourcoing, France
Students in isolation squares on a playground in Tourcoing, France. May 13, 2020. Photo by Lionel Top, BFM News

School leaders globally are facing a daunting task: how to reopen schools safely. The data about school closures and the harmful consequences of exclusive online learning for many K-12 students is tragic. Ensuring equitable access to education and avoiding learning loss are moral imperatives. Yet, providing safe and healthy environments for students, teachers, and other school staff is also a moral imperative. In-person learning during the pandemic raises considerable challenges to overcome.

To balance these conflicting moral imperatives, many districts are looking at a hybrid of in-person and online learning with flexibility to open and reopen as health dictates. To navigate reopening schools, they must consider some shocking statistics.

Online Learning and Unequal Access to Education

Online learning without any in-person learning is presenting many tragic outcomes. Inequity is one of the most severe consequences. A major goal of public education is equal access to instruction and equal environments in which to learn. In contrast, home environments vary widely. When schools closed in March, many students did not have internet access nor devices at home.

School districts swiftly repurposed devices from school campuses to homes. Districts also partnered with the private sector in March and April to bridge this digital divide with rapid distribution of donated devices and hotspots. However, 33% of school board members in California reported in May that more than 50% of students still lack internet access needed for online instruction. 50% of California school board members reported that less than half their students in multi-sibling families have access to multiple internet-capable devices.

Even in families where each student has a device, some devices like tablets can’t be used for all the instructional software needed, so the siblings rotate devices depending on what lessons or assignments they have. A California task force studied what’s needed to bridge the digital divide. According to State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, the cost to remedy this by August is estimated to be at least $500M. My school district assigned seven staff members to focus on tech support for parents to assist them in helping their children; they have been well utilized. Many districts do not have the funds to offer this tech support.

Online Learning and Student Mental Health

Girl watches her teacher’s lesson on a tablet

Learning without in-person interaction is hard on most students. Student mental health problems could have deep and long implications. 22% of students in California self report that they have been accessing mental health services. An additional 30% report that they think they need mental health services. Experts recommend that school counselors train in trauma-informed practices. Most school districts don’t have the funding to offer these socio-emotional supports.

The statistics about the students are so appalling that the need to reopen is overwhelming. In addition, parents are begging school leaders to reopen schools.

Online Learning Challenges Working Parents

Online learning is also hard on parents. When schools offer online classes to keep students from sharing the virus, it requires extensive supervision from adults. The majority of parents of students in grades pre-K through 2nd grade say they need to help their students navigate through the software while on their devices. For K-12 special needs students, the needs are even greater for parent assistance with their devices and software.

Teachers have the option to use the mute button for all their students while offering live online lessons and unmute one student at a time when they have questions. Many parents, on the other hand, are finding the constant level of activity and volume in their homes an impossible work environment.

Online Learning Leads to Learning Loss

Young boy wearing face mask

Researchers in recent years have determined that K-12 students on average lose one month of reading and math knowledge over the summer. It is not yet known how much learning loss will occur if students didn’t learn this spring and also have a summer without instruction. The Northwest Evaluation Association’s Collaborative for Student Growth projects that by August students overall are likely to retain only 70% of the 2019–20 school year’s gains in reading compared with a typical school year, and less than 50% in math. This “COVID slide” will be more profound for students who are unable to access or fully participate in a robust remote learning curriculum. If we can’t open schools full-time this fall, how much additional learning loss will result by the time they return?

Growing Achievement Gap

A 2019 study found that students in the top 25% of achievement actually gain in their learning over the summer because of access to educational opportunities. By the end of the pandemic, the achievement gap is likely to have grown so substantially it will become an achievement chasm.

Detailed Guidelines for Reopening Schools

Given the tragic outcomes of providing online learning only, it is imperative to determine how to reopen schools as soon as possible. The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says ensuring that both students and staff are safe when reopening schools is also a moral imperative.

How can education leaders meet the learning, emotional, social, health, safety, and economic needs of students, staff, and our broader community at once? Last week California’s Department of Health and Department of Education both released guidelines for safety procedures in reopening schools. The CDE guidelines are 66 pages with questions to be answered by teams of administrators and other district stakeholders on health and safety protocol around classrooms, instructional materials, meals, health checks, frequency of deep cleaning, frequency of wiping, drop off, pick up, sports, music, special needs children, buses and other transportation.

Man deep cleans classroom

How many entrances to each site if each student and staff member will have their temperature checked with a contactless thermometer? What will be the protocols for school nurses?

Physical Isolation at Schools with Fewer Activities

Likely no assemblies, no eating in the cafeteria or in groups, and no parents or volunteers will be allowed on campus. Staggered start and end times will probably be part of most district’s reopening plans. Students may be asked to carry all or most of their instructional materials to and from home each day to allow for deep cleaning of the classroom. Various scheduling models may be implemented including some grades attending school in person for two mornings per week or clustered alphabetically by last name with students in pods of four students for the year. The alphabetic clustering assists working parents who have children in different grades attend school on the same schedule. As districts try to reduce close in-person interaction of adults with children, music and art may be offered online only if at all. There may be no ball games, no running, and maybe only jumping jacks and stretch breaks on designated physically-distanced spots. Student mental health may still be impacted with these modified in-person learning environments.

Elementary school students wear social distance hats
Students wear social distance hats at Yangzheng Elementary School in Hangzhou, China. April 26, 2020. Photo by Yen Fei Chen of Hangzhou News.

Correlation with Testing and Tracing

US administrators are also studying the school systems that have been open in other countries continuously or that have opened a month or two after they had closed. A key finding is that those that were able to stay open were in countries with extensive testing and tracking. ABC News reported on June 20, 2020 that more than 50% of U.S. labs were still unable to obtain enough supplies in May, such as swabs to collect samples and chemical reagents and testing kits to perform COVID-19 PCR diagnostic testing. Making matters worse, 40% of the labs were unable to obtain the PPE needed for scientists to perform the testing safely.

Increased Costs

In the California Department of Public Health guidelines, the state offered to use its mass purchasing ability to provide PPE to sites, but school administrators expect that may be only two masks per student and nowhere near sufficient. Districts may need to purchase their own ultraviolet cleaning systems for each campus, which are on backorder at suppliers, and sufficient PPE for all staff.

Workers disinfect a school cafeteria in South Korea

Other increased costs to school districts are also substantial. Our school district has been distributing 40,000 meals per month at multiple school and community sites and is continuing through the summer.

Teaching New Health and Safety Protocols

Although children are less likely to show any symptoms of the virus, they can transmit the virus to adults. Children tend to shed viruses at higher levels and for longer than adults, according to Aubree Gordon, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan. They’re also not as good at personal hygiene like washing their hands.

Social distance floor decal
Packs of social distance floor decals for sale on Amazon.com

Many school districts are planning two-week “boot camps” at the beginning of the 2020–21 school year to train staff, students, and parents in the new health and safety expectations and protocols. How many lessons should be focused on hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing in order for the teachers, students, and their families to be safe?

Impact on the Economy

Until schools reopen, the U.S. economy is stuck in neutral, according to economists and policy analysts from both sides of the country’s political divide. Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the free-market American Enterprise Institute, stated, “It’s really hard to imagine anything like a normal economy when you have tens of millions of workers tied up caring for their kids.”

Ross Hammond of the Brookings Institution recently found that each one-month closing of all U.S. schools could cost the economy more than $50 billion in lost productivity, or 0.2% of GDP.

Impact on Working Women

In addition to equitable concerns about loss of learning, online learning only may have negative impacts on women in the workforce. According to studies in Australia, before COVID-19, women already did double the hours of unpaid work at home than men did in Australia. Preliminary survey results by Dr Brendan Churchill and colleagues at the University of Melbourne suggest this gender gap is widening.

As a result of COVID-19, mothers are spending an extra hour each day on unpaid housework and four extra hours on childcare, according to the study. Fathers are expending about half of that effort, putting in an 30 extra minutes on housework and two additional hours on childcare during the crisis.

Teacher measuring desk distances

The early data in the United States also demonstrate the economic impact of the public health crisis is widening the gap between men and women in paid and unpaid work.

Suzanne Mitchell, is an advertising saleswoman in Boston with 13-year-old twins who says she and her husband are managing working at home with difficulty: “I am now a teacher, a principal, a cafeteria worker and an afterschool coordinator, in addition to my job.”

Length of Pandemic Underscores Imperative to Reopen Schools

Fauci doesn’t see normalcy returning anytime soon amid the coronavirus pandemic, citing the recent spikes in COVID-19 cases across the US.

“I would hope to get to some degree of real normality within a year or so, but I don’t think it’s this winter or fall; we’ll be seeing it for a bit more,” Fauci said this week.

The California School Board Association is working with state lawmakers and the Governor’s office to ensure that several conditions are met before resuming on-campus classes:

Young girl wears face mask

· Testing is widespread and accessible to all Californians

· The State makes additional progress in providing access to technology such as broadband internet and computers that will be needed to resume school under a cohort/staggered/hybrid model

· Local school boards determine that implementation of the CDE and CDPH guidelines are plausible.

· The State increases funding to schools to pay for current year and budget year 2021 COVID-19 related costs. The State provides funding and support for the actual costs and supports needed to effectively implement social distancing measures on campus.

Education leaders need to consider the impacts on the broader economy, on teachers and other school staff, on parents, on racial and socio-economic equity, on gender, on local business, on local health care workers, and on their district’s financial condition.

Ultimately, the top priority must be the academic, physical, social, and emotional development of the students.

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Susan Epstein

Susan Epstein is a social entrepreneur, policy maker, software engineering teacher, early AI researcher, attorney, management consultant, and educator.