It’s hard to imagine a worse dilemma than the one school boards and administrators are facing: how to reopen schools in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emotions are running high, and opinions are polarized. Officials want to make decisions based on data, but the data keep changing, with infections rising in much of the country, including Indiana.
There’s a lot at stake, and the decision-makers deserve our patience and respect. I hope most schools can reopen with both full-time, face-to-face instruction and an online alternative for people who choose it. But for some, it won’t happen.
One Indianapolis district, Washington Township, recently decided to offer online instruction only. Two others, Wayne Township and Warren Township, are delaying their start. Some of the nation’s biggest districts – Los Angeles, San Diego and Maryland’s Prince George’s County – are going online-only.
I keep returning to guidance on reopening schools that the American Academy of Pediatrics released in May and updated recently. Schools need to be cautious and flexible as they reopen, the group says. But it concludes:
“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
In a statement last week, the AAP, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, emphasized the importance of school to children’s health.
“Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity,” they added. “Our nation’s response to COVID-19 has laid bare inequities and consequences for children that must be addressed.”
I hope people who believe schools should not reopen to face-to-face instruction will at least read these AAP documents. I found them reassuring as I thought of my grandson and his friends and teachers returning to school.
The most important issue is that, for most students, virtual school is simply no substitute for face-to-face teaching and learning. We saw in the spring, when schools shut down at the start of the pandemic, that this is an especially serious problem for students of color and children from low-income families.
Online education requires a computer and internet access, but an analysis by WFYI and the Polis Center at IUPUI found many Indiana families lack those basics, including 21% of Black families and 15% of Latino families. In some Indianapolis neighborhoods, 50% to 75% of residents lack computers and broadband.
Virtual school can also be challenging for families with elementary-age children, who are likely to need continual guidance to complete online lessons.
Many working families rely on their children being in school during the day. This isn’t to suggest that teachers are baby-sitters; but schools are part of the fabric of society. Many parents and caregivers can’t work if their kids don’t have a safe place to go. If they can’t work, they can’t pay the bills.
In Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, a 38-member committee of administrators, teachers, students and community members put together a detailed plan for reopening schools, with guidance from local and state health officials. It’s cautious and conservative; crucially, it recognizes that conditions could change.
The plan calls for face-to-face instruction as a default but provides an “online academy” for families that want their children to learn online. There’s also a hybrid model for high-school students. Hopefully, teachers who have health concerns, or who aren’t comfortable teaching in person, can teach online.
The school board approved the plan two weeks ago, adding stricter requirements for face coverings in response to teacher and public input. Versions of this process have played out in thousands of school districts across the country.
It’s understandable that many teachers are worried about returning to school and many families are concerned about sending their kids back. Some surveys have found Black and Latino families are especially concerned, which is not surprising.
As COVID-19 numbers rise and news spreads of school districts moving online, I’m starting to see social media campaigns and petition drives aimed at shutting down face-to-face instruction. These appear to be driven by parents who can probably work from home and supervise their kids’ virtual learning.
Advocates for online-only learning make some persuasive arguments, but they should be balanced against the harm that’s likely for disadvantaged students.
And as if this whole issue weren’t fraught enough, now we’ve got President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, two of the most polarizing people on the planet, threatening to withhold funds for schools that move online.
This is a weird shift for DeVos, who has long advocated for virtual education and condemned what she called a “one-size-fits-all” approach of education. You don’t need to be a cynic to think she’s trying to undermine public schools.
With Trump, whose incompetence helped worsen this catastrophe, we’ve seen nothing to suggest he cares about children or schools. But he has an innate sense of how to divide people and make every controversy about himself. Clearly, he thinks he can drive a wedge between teachers and families; and that, when people are divided, he wins.
And that, my friends, is something we can’t allow.