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: