After four years of being a largely forgotten policy area, PK-12 education suddenly became a national priority last week. Under ordinary circumstances, this should be cause for celebration, but the midst of a pandemic is anything but ordinary. The spark for the increased discussion started with the White House’s “Summit on Safely Reopening Schools” and grew the next day with the coronavirus task force meeting at the U.S. Department of Education. Both meetings reinforced the President’s call that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL,” a position picked up on by some governors during the week.
With all apologies to “Hamilton,” prominent political leaders now want to ensure teachers and students are back in the “classroom where it happens” for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. While every teacher I know would love to return to in-person instruction, our society’s refusal to take steps necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus has left us in a world turned upside down. In this new world, the current insistence for schools to “reopen” for in-person instruction in the face of surging COVID-19 cases is both disingenuous and dangerous.
Schools Will Reopen This Fall
Last week’s calls to “reopen schools” distract from an undisputed fact—schools WILL reopen this fall. While I have read about districts planning to change calendars or the format of delivery for instruction in order to meet the health and safety needs of students and staff, I haven’t heard of a single district planning not to “reopen” this fall. Additionally, learning in our schools never closed during the spring; the physical buildings certainly closed, but student learning continued while shifting to a new format.
Several of our national leaders are trying to gaslight the American people into believing that school did not happen in the spring, a move best illustrated by Secretary Betsy DeVos’ statement last week that “a lot” of schools “didn’t figure out how to continue to serve their students … (and) just gave up.” The Secretary backed this claim with think-tank analysis claiming “only 10 percent” of schools provided “any kind of real curriculum.”
While I won’t claim the instructional environment of spring distance learning was optimal or even comparable to what would occur in ordinary circumstances for all students, claiming only 10% of schools provided “real” instruction is an unfair attempt to rewrite the narrative by individuals who were NOT engaged in the hard work of providing learning for students in the midst of a pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
The real narrative of the spring is that America’s teachers, often with less than 48 hours to plan, completely rethought and redesigned the way we deliver instruction to students. Was it perfect in all cases? Of course not—which is to be expected when you are engaged in what one of my colleagues described as “emergency deployed instruction.” Were existing inequities along lines of race, class and poverty exacerbated due to factors like our nation’s digital divide? Unquestionably. But did “real” student learning occur? Absolutely.
I know this not because I read a report but because, for three months, I worked as hard as I have at any point since my first year teaching to provide rich, daily, synchronous and asynchronous instruction for my students to address all material required for their Advanced Placement exam. I also worked around the clock to provide as much social and emotional support as I could muster for students. My work was not exceptional—it was mirrored and exceeded by millions of teachers throughout the United States.
I saw this first-hand in the work of my colleagues and in the incredible efforts of my children’s teachers, none of whom “gave up.” I don’t need a report to know my children received “real” instruction; I saw it in moments ranging from virtual one-on-one viola tutorials to third grade students presenting research on famous South Carolinians over a video conference.
I fully reject any claim that what happened in the spring wasn’t “real” school, and if distance learning is required by health conditions this fall, I am confident the quality of instruction will be even greater. I have this confidence because of the incredible skill, passion, and dedication of our nation’s teachers and due to my shared belief with one of our national officials that learning shouldn’t be “arbitrarily limited by what’s available inside (a student’s) brick-and-mortar classroom.” The author of that quote? Secretary DeVos.
However, while the push last week for a return to “brick-and-mortar” school operations is an attempt to distract and modulate the key of the debate, it is even more alarming because the call is unhinged from and contrary to sound public health guidance. Calls to “reopen” schools given the current status of the pandemic dangerously disregard the health and well-being of students and staff. Even more alarming: There is no plan.
Claims that schools can safely reopen have been largely based on a recent report from the American Association of Pediatrics, which calls for policy considerations for the new school year to “start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” According to the report, this step is necessary for the social and mental health of students. As a teacher, I agree completely with this assertion, which is why I desperately want to return to in-person instruction.
However, these benefits of in-person instruction must be carefully weighed against risks associated with the pandemic, and at this moment, the risks remain too high to allow for a return to full in-person instruction in most of the country. While the AAP report notes children are “less likely to become infected and spread” the virus, the report fails to adequately address the fact that adults in schools face higher risks- risks that are amplified because the report does not and can not claim children can never contract or spread COVID-19.
In my state, 15% of the current reported cases have been in those under the age of 20, a number not drastically out of line with the 21% of the state population under the age of 18. Numbers like these are part of why the head of the AAP subsequently clarified that the organization’s report shouldn’t be used as justification to force schools to reopen where the rate of coronavirus spread is high—and “high” is an understatement for the rate of spread across most of the country right now.
Schools Are Ill-Equipped to Keep Students and Teachers Safe
Political leaders calling on schools to reopen are also ignoring the fact that many schools are ill-equipped to enact the best practices necessary to keep students and staff safe during a pandemic. The AAP report, CDC guidelines, and many state reopening plans (including the one from my state) all note that a return to in-person instruction should include social distancing of students and increased access to resources like hand sanitizers and masks. All of these classroom requirements have a cost, and as anyone that has worked in a school can tell you, classroom supply costs are overwhelmingly born by teachers or parents in our schools.
For years, our teachers have pieced together a system rife with inequities. Where funding fell short, teachers filled the gaps by working longer hours, wearing multiple hats beyond instruction, and paying out of their pocket for supplies. This pandemic has served as an x-ray for our educational system, and all the fractures teachers have held together for so long have been laid bare for all to see.
Ultimately, that is where the recent push to “reopen schools” falls short. In this instance, talking is easy, but educating is harder. You can’t talk your way out of a pandemic. A virus doesn’t care if you bully it on Twitter, and it won’t be distracted by the next outrageous statement. COVID-19 will continue to spread—and continue to prevent us from getting all kids back in schools—until we pair our words with the actions required to keep students and staff safe.
At the federal level, those actions have to start with additional financial support so schools can meet the resource and staffing requirements required to keep all students and staff healthy and safe. The CARES Act allocated $13 billion for our schools, but estimates show that meeting health and safety requirements in a pandemic could require closer to $175 billion. This makes the passage of additional stimulus to schools, such as the money included in the HEROES Act, essential, and it makes empty, unenforceable threats to withhold school funding counterproductive.
At a personal level, we all have a role to play in getting our students back to in-person instruction. In the end, discussion about a return to in-person instruction is not—and can not be allowed to be—a political issue. This is exclusively a public health issue, and fortunately, we have clear directives from public health authorities about how to slow and control the spread of this virus. But these directives require collective action from everyone, requiring us to think less about what we want or prefer to do and more about what we need to do—things like social distancing and wearing masks. We still have the capacity to create the conditions for students and teachers to return safely to in-person instruction, but if we don’t commit to following public health guidance, we risk throwing away that shot.