A Case for Reopening Our Schools

The discussion about reopening schools is difficult in part because there are very good arguments for very different decisions. Today, let me share the arguments that I think should weigh most heavily in favor of opening schools as fully as we can, when and where we can. These arguments boil down to four key things: equity, educational quality, a broader view of safety, and the recommendations of experts.

Equity and Fairness Matter

I’ll start with what I think is the biggest and most important issue. Keeping the schools closed and offering instruction entirely online does not affect all children or families equally. Some of the loudest and most vocal advocates for keeping schools closed are those with reliable high-speed internet in their homes, laptops for their kids, a home with quiet places to study, and a job or spouse who can supervise their kids throughout the day. Imagining schools entirely online when you are in this situation is relatively easy. But this does not describe all — or even most — of our East Penn families.

Distance learning makes existing economic and racial inequalities in schooling worse. Although it’s naive to believe that schools provide a level playing field for everyone, they do often provide more equity than many students find in the outside world. There are supplies, experts, equipment, and procedures that assist students when they are at school that are simply impossible to replicate online. Sadly, not all students have equal opportunity to access online instruction, even with East Penn’s commitment to technology for all students.  The divide was highlighted by a recent report from Los Angeles on the impact of the move to fully online instruction this spring:

“Compared to more advantaged students, fewer middle and high school students who are Black, Hispanic, living in low-income households, classified as English learners, have a disability, are in the District’s homeless program or are in foster care participated across all measures of online activity.”

The report’s conclusion also highlights another group of students who are disadvantaged by keeping schools closed: those with disabilities. Students with learning disabilities — more than 1 out of 5 students in East Penn — often have individualized educational plans (IEPs) that are difficult or impossible to fully meet through remote instruction. And these are the very students who can’t afford to have instruction that doesn’t meet their needs.

We Need High Quality Public Education

For those who don’t already know this, I’m going to let you in on a not-so-secret truth: online education isn’t very good. Yes, some students do well in some circumstances. Yes, some online instruction is better than others. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. The increasingly slick “course management systems,” professionally produced videos, and stream of well-marketed educational gadgets and apps can blind us to just how bad online education really is most of the time. I’m confident East Penn’s remote learning plan for this coming year will be much better than what we saw in the spring, and East Penn teachers have had more time and training to significant improve online teaching. But that doesn’t mean it will compare, on the whole, to what is regularly done in the in-person classrooms of the district.

When we close the schools, students miss out on many of the experiences that make learning meaningful, motivating, and memorable.  Online, there is little hands-on learning, science labs, peer tutoring, or experiential learning. LCTI students are hit particularly hard.  There is no adequate online replacement for learning-by-doing approach in LCTI programs like carpentry, dental hygiene, auto body repair, landscaping, and cosmetology.

A high quality education is not just about academic subjects. So much more is gained by students having direct connections with each other and with the educators in our schools. Social-emotional learning is an important aspect of East Penn’s approach to education. And it is precisely this aspect of the East Penn educational experience that will suffer the greatest harm from instruction that is all online.

A Full View of Safety

We are living in scary times right now. People are rightfully afraid of contracting COVID-19, afraid of spreading it to loved ones, and afraid of what the pandemic means for their future and the future of their families. We need to respond appropriately and fully to the real risks posed by the pandemic. But psychologists have long known that fear also frequently leads us to overestimate the danger we face. Fear can also blind us to the fact that there are risks in everything we do. So it’s important to take a careful look at all risks when it comes to the pandemic, not just those associated with our fear of contracting the virus.

In-person instruction certainly elevates some dangers in the pandemic. At the same time, it’s worth keeping in mind that our public schools are the foundation of our community and our democratic institutions — both valuable enough that I think they are worth taking on at least some additional risk. Beyond that, some — maybe even most — of the elevated risk can be mitigated by social distancing practices like masks, physical separation, greater use of outdoor spaces, and so on. It is therefore not enough to simply note that reopening schools poses some risks. The important questions are how much risk, how does that risk compare to other risks we face, and how much can we reduce the risk?

I also have concerns that some of the health and safety dangers of keeping kids at home are not being fully factored into the discussion. Isolation and disconnection are real risk factors for not only mental health problems like depression, but also physical health and wellbeing. Schools offer refuge from, and potentially intervention in, concrete safety issues like malnutrition, eating disorders, abuse, and neglect that are shockingly common for many children– in every neighborhood in our district. As the Curry School of Education & Human Development at the University of Virginia notes, all of this adds up to a sobering reality: students are often safer in school than they are at home. When we discuss risks, we should consider all of these things — not just the risk posed by COVID-19.

There is also growing evidence that — under the right conditions — schools CAN operate safely in the pandemic. This has been true in Norway and Denmark, for example. The evidence is far from definitive, and requires more than just a wing and a prayer to make work. But let’s not pretend it’s impossible.

What the Experts Say

I’m not an epidemiologist or a public health expert. Nor am I a child development expert or virologist. And because I’m not any of these things, I give strong weight to such experts in order to make informed decisions for our community. Here’s the gloss on what experts from a number of relevant fields have concluded about reopening schools:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics says that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
  • The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the School Superintendents Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have joined together to recommend “doing everything we can so that all students have the opportunity to safely resume in-person learning.”
  • The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — one of the most well-respected scientific organizations in the world — has concluded that “[w]eighing the health risks of reopening K-12 schools in fall 2020 against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction, school districts should prioritize reopening schools full time.”

These are the arguments for reopening schools that are the most compelling to me.  What about you?  Please share your questions, concerns, or perspectives with me in the comment area available below. 

This is the third part of my weeklong series of posts on reopening the East Penn schools.  Here are the others:

10 thoughts on “A Case for Reopening Our Schools”

  1. I am a resident of East Penn and teach in a neighboring school district. My children are grown and received a top-notch education in East Penn. Faculty and staff are lost in this conversation, what will happen when a staff member dies from Covid contracted at school? One life lost or a year lost? What matters?

  2. First–thanks for your thoughtful and rational approach to this discussion. For the record, I live in a neighboring district, but my spouse teaches in EastPenn.

    Some of my thoughts and concerns… I understand everyone wants to know what the plan is. School is about a month away–but we don’t know what the numbers will be by then. New infections are rising, not at a huge rate, but they are. So far, deaths are not–yet. Deaths from Covid-19 may lag 4-6 weeks–based on when new cases started climbing, we have about 2 weeks to see if the deaths start climbing again. There should be acknowledgement that in-school instruction may not be possible to do safely, period.

    I have a selfish motive for this observation, but teachers seem to be the last in line when it comes to classroom safety. With a staggered schedule, where a certain number of students come in each day, and each student might only be in school 1 or 2 days a week. Teachers are in the rooms with fewer students per day, but they’ll still be in rooms with kids every day, all day–and they’ll still be exposed to all their students throughout the week–so I’d say they’re at the highest risk of exposure. Then those same kids we’re trying to protect by limiting their time in school, and going to be in a room while they’re there, with the one person who is at the highest risk of infection.

    In one sense I do think the school system is too worried about what parents want. I think it’s important to understand the what and why of what parents want, but I feel we shouldn’t be basing the way school is re-opened on what parents want–it has to be based on what is safe, what are acceptable risks, and that goes for students and staff.

    Folks have probably seen this, but I’ll share it anyway, in case you haven’t: https://morettiphd.wordpress.com/2020/07/12/one-parent-outlines-his-and-his-friends-choices-for-his-children-this-fall/

    Some points this person raises are quite valid and relevant to EastPenn and many other districts, and they should be considered and weighed–I know some of them have been.
    From the post:

    1.Kids should be in school so they can socialize. “What do we think ‘social’ will look like? There aren’t going to be any lunch table groups, any lockers, any recess games, any study halls, any sitting next to friends, any talking to people in the hallway, any dances. All of that is off the menu. So, when we say that we want the kids to benefit from the social experience, what are we deluding ourselves into thinking in-building socialization will actually look like in the fall?”

    2. Regarding classrooms being safe: “I posed the following question to 40 people today, representing professional and management roles in corporations, government agencies, and military commands: “Would your company or command have a 12 person, 45 minute meeting in a conference room?”

    100% of them said no, they would not. These are some of their answers:

    “No. Until further notice we are on Zoom.”
    “(Our company) doesn’t allow us in (company space).”
    “Oh hell no.”
    “No absolutely not.”
    “Is there a percentage lower than zero?”
    “Something of that size would be virtual.”

    3. Regarding School Board meetings: “I will summarize my view of the School Board thusly: if the 12 of you aren’t getting into a room together because it represents a risk, don’t tell me it’s OK for our kids. I understand your arguments, that we need the 2 days option for parents who can’t work from home, kids who don’t have internet or computer access, kids who needs meals from the school system, kids who need extra support to learn, and most tragically for kids who are at greater risk of abuse by being home. All very serious, all very real issues, all heartbreaking. No argument.

    But you must first lead by example. Because you’re failing when it comes to optics. All your meetings are online. What our children see is all of you on a Zoom telling them it’s OK for them to be exactly where you aren’t. ”

    4. Comparing teachers to grocery store workers: “A grocery store worker, who absolutely risks exposure, has either six feet of space or a plexiglass shield between them and individual adult customers who can grasp their own mortality whose transactions can be completed in moments, in a 40,000 SF space.

    A teacher is with 11 ‘customers’ who have not an inkling what mortality is, for 45 minutes, in a 675 SF space, six times a day. ”

    5. Teachers need to do their job: “How is it that the same society which abruptly shifted to virtual students only three months ago, and offered glowing endorsements of teachers stating, “we finally understand how difficult your job is,” has now shifted to “screw you, do your job.” There are myriad problems with that position but for the purposes of this piece let’s simply go with, “You’re not looking for a teacher, you’re looking for the babysitter you feel your property tax payment entitles you to.”

    Now–this was a long comment, thanks if you made it this far. I’m not suggesting that the Board is not working hard to sort everything out–I realize the tremendous challenge they face. And I’m not suggesting they haven’t considered the points above, just that we haven’t necessarily heard each of them addressed yet.

    I think it’s awesome, parents have an option to choose 100% online learning, but I still have concern for the teachers/staff that will need to be in the building 5 days a week, for the full day. When someone is infected, and someone will be, the cascade effect regarding the contact list is going to be quite a long. If it’s a teacher, that could be 100 students in the course of a week, plus student’s families, plus the teacher’s family– +/-350 people? That’s not counting the students, those 100 students have other classes with, or ride the bus with.

    So, my big concern is around the potential of how this could get out of hand.

    • These are great points and, as a teacher (in another district), I agree with many of them. Teachers have not been heard enough–not necessarily picking on East Penn here, because I don’t know the situation for East Penn teachers, but many, if not most, teachers in the Lehigh Valley don’t have a choice about going back. I also have to agree a bit about the school board meetings–it is a bit of an irony that the meetings are virtual for safety reasons but kids and teachers will be back in the classrooms (though I get that we’re not comparing apples to apples here, as there aren’t really compelling reasons to have board meetings in-person). Finally, it is a bit demoralizing as a teacher to hear that the 40 folks you spoke to in other lines of work would not consider having a 45-minute indoor meeting with 12 people, while teachers are expected to be with at least 12 people indoors (often without workable windows) for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. I think there is just a general societal expectation that teachers should be and are willing to be martyrs. Teachers tend to be givers who don’t ask for much in return–the vast majority of teachers will go along with whatever they are told regarding going back, both because they need their jobs and because they are so used to putting themselves last.

  3. Ultimate goal right now needs to be protecting and saving lives. There are so many reasons why school is important. But, my goal as a parent, is to make sure my child is safe and survives to adulthood. To be honest, that is always more important than anything they will learn in school. I worry about everyone working in schools from custodians to teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and support staff. I find it strange that this pandemic has truly turned to schools reopening for in-person education as the “economic cure”. The failure to respond appropriately on a higher level was the problem and it is not any district’s job now to “fix” this.

    As my husband has stated many times, how many people would let maybe 25 people from different households sit in their living room for 7 hours a day not knowing where they have been or what they have been doing? I don’t know how many people are comfortable with that idea currently. This is the same situation in any classroom.

    I just saw many large district’s in Maryland decided to start the year completely remotely. One of them made a statement that they attempted in-person instruction during the summer (probably summer school) using social distancing, face masks, etc. and it was too difficult to implement even with just the few students they had in the building. They said the staff struggled to be able to have appropriate social distancing as well. They also realized the time delay on getting a test result is now about a week. If it takes a week to figure out if someone has the virus, how many families are exposed during that time? Think about siblings from those families in other buildings and now it has spread across the district.

    It is unfortunately feeling like a great science experiment where our combination of chemicals will either work or explode in our face.

  4. I really appreciate your thoughtful posts this week, as well as the level-headed responses – it’s actually almost startling to read “posts” or “comments” that may not align, but are level-headed and reasonable.

    The only thing I might add are two minor points:

    1) the AAP quotation is used quite a bit, speaking about the notion that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school” – which I would hope would always be the case, but doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the reality of the given circumstances.

    2) Online education versus in-person education – I think this *may* probably be true… but cannot be stated as a blanket statement. Too much depends on the quality of the instructor in either given circumstance, in addition to resources, etc…. regardless, this point becomes a very different element when considered as a permanent condition versus a temporary one. Were my student to be subjected to an entire educational career online, I
    might feel significantly different than I would knowing that this is a temporary situation. We WILL return to in-person education… that is not the question. It is simply a matter of when.

    Again, thanks to all for a level-headed discussion.

  5. Allentown will be going online in fall too. they have more at risk students who might fall through the cracks, but they are more worried about saving lives.

  6. What if we consider another 3 months of quarantine and really restricting our lives so that we can open in the future with less restrictions? Our kids surely won’t fall so far behind…we are all in the same boat!! Other countries were more restrictive and have close to zero cases.

    • Agree with this…the whole country should be doing this. And we need to do it for real this time–and not open before we have the virus under control.

  7. Dr Munson,

    I was able to pull this data off of the Health.pa.gov site and tie together. You previously mentioned the CDC estimating undercounting cases at between 2-13 times. At the lowest end of their estimate, cut the mortality rate in half. The state doesn’t count deaths under 5 total, hence the squiggly line as the below 20 yr old total deaths, though sad, are statisically irrelevant.

    Ages Cases Deaths Mortality rate(% infected who die) Survival Rate(%)
    0-9 1868 ~ ~ 100%
    10-19 5207 ~ ~ 100%
    20-29 17253 6 0.03% 99.97%
    30-39 16182 22 0.1% 99.9%
    40-49 14675 114 0.7% 99.3%
    50-59 16911 353 2% 98%
    60-69 13514 964 7% 93%

    The fear of this virus and the measures implemented to hide from it are far scarier than the virus itself.
    Additionally, Look at the revenue projections from PA’s Independent Fiscal Office. They project a 9% decrease in school property tax revenue in Lehigh County. I would like you to expand on how that kind of revenue loss coupled with virus mitigation expenses will affect the district in 2021?




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