I have been struggling to write this blog entry for weeks. Each time I think I have a handle on what I believe makes sense, more news and differing advisories and opinion columns give me mental whiplash. I am now convinced that I don’t know the answer. I am convinced that there is no one right answer or one-size-fits-all. And I am convinced that local school districts absolutely need to figure out their best answers both for the children, parents, and communities they serve, and for the nation.
Schools remain critical for the well-being of all of those stakeholders and for the nation as a whole. Advancing academic learning remains a primary goal, but schools serve many functions: development of social and emotional learning, mental health services, providing food as needed, development of compensatory skills for special needs, and learning about citizenship. And the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the role of schools in enabling parents to work outside the home. Students already have lost ground academically and are dealing with the emotional aftermath of the Spring’s unexpected shutdown and an atmosphere of fear. The pandemic has revealed gross inequities about access to remote learning that remain unresolved, and we have yet to educate teachers on effective remote learning strategies.
The arguments to reopen schools as quickly as is safely possible continue to be compelling.
But it is that qualifier, “as is safely possible,” that stumps educational leaders. Although children under 10 seem to spread the virus less, according to a new study from South Korea, children 10-19 are as contagious as adults. The National Center for Education Statistics identifies almost 30% of teachers as high risk, and schools tend to be enclosed spaces where people spend hours in close proximity, increasing the likelihood of spreading the disease. Children may also take it home to older adults who remain vulnerable. Transporting students to and from school and feeding them lunch prove problematical.
The University of Washington’s study about school reopenings around the world lists several key factors to help reduce risks:
- Reductions of class size
- Increasing physical distance between students
- Keeping students in defined groups with limited interaction between groups
- Some degree of staggering the start, stop, and break times within the school
- Alternate shifts (morning, afternoon) or alternate days
- Opening schools only for younger or older students in order to accommodate the increase in resources (classroom space, teachers, etc.) required for smaller class sizes.
- Requiring face masks for students and/or staff in schools
- Systematic school-based testing for SARS-CoV-2 virus or antibodies 
School systems, already facing a loss of income from reduced tax receipts, will be hard pressed to bear the expense of such safety measures. The need for such protections also varies among communities based on their rate of Covid infections. Given the local control of schools, the variety of responses seems inevitable and appropriate. New York plans on a hybrid approach of in-person learning, while Los Angeles and San Diego plan online instruction only. The local school districts where we live, an hour west of Chicago, offer a variety of options. Every family must make a decision based on the options available, weighing a myriad of factors and accepting how much is unknown.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said last week: “The pandemic has reminded so many … that educators are invaluable in children’s lives and that attending school in person offers children a wide array of health and educational benefits. For our country to truly value children, elected leaders must come together to appropriately support schools in safely returning students to the classroom and reopening schools.” We need to reopen our schools. Can we do it safely?
I have missed classroom engagement since I retired. Now, for the first time, I am relieved to be retired. My heart aches for those who must make tough decisions when no clear answers emerge, at least for me.