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 keeping our schools closed this fall and providing instruction remotely instead. These arguments boil down to four key things: the national context, continued uncertainty, short- vs long-term thinking, and the quality of education.
The National Context
The prevalence of COVID-19 is relatively low in the Lehigh Valley right now, if your point of comparison is its peak in April or the current outbreaks in other parts of the country. Nonetheless, the number of new cases each day are more than double what they were when the schools first closed in March. Not only that, my social media feed is filled with photos of East Penn families, some of them district employees, vacationing all over the United States, including current pandemic hotspots like Florida and California. Our risk locally is thus not based solely on our local numbers, but also the state of the pandemic in all these areas. As I noted in a previous post, we still don’t have enough testing or contact tracing capacity to ensure that an uptick in new cases will be caught and contained in time to avoid a major outbreak here in our community (a problem that is occurring right now throughout areas in the South and West, which previously had low numbers of cases, too). Does it make sense to reopen schools at a time when the pandemic remains out of control in many parts of the country?
Here’s another way the national context constrains us: it is pretty clear that reopening our schools is simply not a national priority right now. Sure, there is lots of handwringing by politicians about the state of our schools, tweets bemoaning their continued closure, and so forth. But the federal stimulus legislation passed in March devoted less than 1% of stimulus money to education. Actions speak louder than words. There are dozens of bold and creative plans out there for safely reopening schools (like this intriguing one), but all of them require a substantial national investment in the value of education during the pandemic. Yet school districts are facing the coming school year with fewer resources, not more. And certainly not enough to pay for needed changes to cramped buildings, improved ventilation, adaptation of outdoor spaces, additional personnel, and all the health and safety equipment that would be required to properly resume in-person teaching on a large scale.
We have learned a lot about the COVID-19 virus since it first appeared earlier this year. At the same time, there are still many unknowns that speak directly to the health and safety of reopening schools. The mortality rate of the virus is still the subject of debate among experts, as are the relative role of different risk factors and modes of transmission. We know that properly worn masks can greatly reduce transmission, but little about the effectiveness of face shields, which Pennsylvania will allow as an alternative to masks in our schools.
Children seem to contract and transmit the virus at lower rates than adults, and on average have milder symptoms. But these conclusions remain tentative. The best study to date on the subject actually shows that children 10 and over are more likely than adults to infect others. And cases like the high school in Illinois where 36 students were infected, and the county in Texas where 85 babies and toddlers under the age of 2 were infected, demonstrate we still have much to learn about how the virus works among kids. We should not be making our children and their families, or the district’s teachers and staff, guinea pigs in an experiment with so many unknowns.
There is also the uncertainty of how well health and safety precautions can be effectively enforced. Close and extended physical interaction between teachers, students, and staff is the norm in our schools — and for good reason. Ask any kindergarten teacher how many hands they help clean or noses they help blow on a daily basis. Or ask any high school teacher how many times a day they are at a student’s shoulder, answering a question or helping with a problem. These kinds of interactions happen thousands, if not tens of thousands, of times a day in our schools under normal circumstances. How sure are we that any set of health and safety rules will prevent such close contact? How sure are we that these kinds of contacts won’t ultimately help spread COVID-19 even further in our community?
Short- Versus Long-term Thinking
We eventually need to figure out how to reopen our schools. Education is simply too important to the future of our kids, to our economy, and to our democracy to rely on remote instruction forever. And having the schools closed is hard — it’s hard on students, it’s hard on working families, it’s hard on our economy. But reopening our schools too soon could very well provide the tinder that both intensifies and lengthens the pandemic in our community. In other words, we’re in danger of turning a disaster into a catastrophe. This would be even harder on students, families, and the economy. We should not let our understandable frustration with the current situation, or our understandable desire to get back to ‘normal’ after so many months, lead us to reopen schools in the short term only to find that doing so has created even greater lasting damage in the long run.
What Does Quality Education Look Like?
The central rationale for reopening schools is that having kids and teachers in actual classrooms provides a kind of educational experience that simply can’t be replicated online. I agree. The problem, though, is that much of this rich experience will be lost in the many safety precautions our schools need in the current conditions of the pandemic.
As I noted in a previous post, students will only be in school a couple days a week. Everyone will have to be masked. Everyone will have to stay at least six feet from each other unless absolutely necessary. Students will be largely confined to their classroom desks, even at lunchtime. All of these precautions make sense from a health and safety perspective. But at some point, the value of bringing students back to school collapses under the weight of all these needed precautions.
How much personal connection can a teacher make with a child, always staying six feet away and with a mask covering their face? How much instruction can a teacher give if they are also responsible for monitoring the physical distance between students, ensuring students wear masks properly, finding masks for those students who have forgotten their own, and so on?
And how much can schools be sites of connection, socialization, and socio-emotional learning when students need to keep their distance from each other on the playground? When they can’t come together in close groups in the classroom? When masks hide so much of the facial expressions we all make when we are happy, sad, angry, surprised, afraid, excited? There comes a point when the masks, social distancing, closed lunches, and one-way hallways negate most of the benefit of in-person learning.
These are the arguments for keeping schools closed this fall that are most compelling to me. What about you? Share your questions, concerns, or perspective in the comment area available below.
This is the fourth part of a weeklong series of posts on reopening the East Penn schools. Here are the others: