With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across much of America, a return to full-scale classroom instruction poses too grave a risk to students, teachers, school staff, parents and their communities.
Across the country, many of the public schools that are scheduled to open their doors within the next few weeks are still in limbo as to whether they should open on time and how they should operate — with full-scale in-person classroom instruction, with online learning only, or with some hybrid of the two. But the right call is becoming clearer by the day: It’s too soon to bring students and teachers back into the classroom.
Most communities are not ready to reopen their schools for traditional classes because neither government leaders nor the public have done nearly enough to curb the spread of the coronavirus or make the necessary preparations that would be required to operate schools safely.
Tens of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 are being reported every day and the death toll is averaging more than a thousand daily, with Sun Belt states seeing most of the biggest surges. It’s becoming ever clearer that this grim tally will continue until an effective vaccine is available. Until then, the possibility that students, their parents, teachers and school staff could become infected with the coronavirus and spread it widely to their communities should gravely concern every public official. The danger is hardly speculative: Schools that are among the earliest to reopen are already seeing positive cases.
The arguments that students learn better in a classroom setting, that they are suffering psychologically from social isolation, and that school closures have been particularly hard on working families are all legitimate. But are we really prepared to further risk the health of our children and of our communities by putting them in an environment where most of the practices to curb the virus will be difficult, if not impossible, to consistently follow?
And the danger to school staff members if they are forced to return to work should not be underestimated. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 25 percent of teachers are at risk of serious illness if they become infected with COVID-19, either because of their age — 65 or older — or their underlying health conditions.
The rush to reopen fully for in-person instruction has been driven in part by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose demands have been accompanied with threats of losing federal funds. Those demands appear to run afoul of guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a few weeks ago: Among other things, the CDC counseled going with small, socially distanced class sizes, emphasizing hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, and requiring cloth face coverings — common-sense precautions the president said were too strict and many school officials say will be difficult to implement.
The political pressure has been so intense that the CDC issued a new set of “resources and tools” for school reopening, with CDC Director Robert Redfield saying that “the goal line is to get the majority of these students back to face-to-face learning,” a stance that was seen by many as a capitulation after the president criticized the earlier guidelines. Clearly this is not what most Americans expect of our top health officials. The public must feel confident that decisions to reopen schools are based on the best scientific evidence available and the professional advice of educators.
Despite the threats and pressure, many school officials are still doing the right thing by listening to local health experts and deciding for themselves when and how best to reopen. I see this in my own state of Georgia, where, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on how Georgia schools plan to start the school year, most school official are delaying opening and say that when they do open they plan to implement a hybrid approach to instruction. “Teachers will check in virtually — via some video conferencing software allowing them to see the dozens of children they would normally engage with through rows or groups of desks,” the newspaper reported.
The larger school districts in metropolitan Atlanta recently reversed themselves from offering parents an option to send their children to school traditionally or attend virtually, opting to go all-virtual because of the spikes in the virus. Other schools in the state plan to meet on campus a few days a week and do virtual learning on other days. Then there are superintendents who plan to prioritize on-campus learning but restrict it to students with special learning needs, such as those who have autism. Many of these options are complex and carry with them implications difficult to foresee, but they all prioritize the health of students.
The ultimate decider of when schools will fully reopen will undoubtedly be parents, at least those who have the freedom and budgets to stay home and monitor their children’s academic progress and assist with their homework. As a caring society, we must ensure that the option to telework is given to as many parents as possible, so that the decision to send one’s children to school and possibly expose them to the coronavirus is not based on family income and social status.
We are still in an existential fight with the coronavirus, and we do not know precisely how or when this battle will end. We do know the virus is apolitical and knows no local or state boundaries. There are no quick or easy solutions. One can only pray that public officials learned something from reopening our economy too soon. We do not want this to happen again by prematurely reopening schools.
Much of what our children lose in a semester or two of distance learning can be made up in time, but a lost life is forever.