Grateful for in-person school

This post was first published Sept. 26 as a guest column in the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Times.

Given the choice of having fully online schooling, 70% of families in the Monroe County Community School Corp. have opted instead to send their children to school in person. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Enrolling your child in the local public school has always been an act of profound trust. Families trust schools to keep their children safe from accidents, bullies, shootings and threats they haven’t imagined. They trust schools to build character and have a positive influence on behavior. Fundamentally, they trust schools and teachers to understand what students need to know and to make sure they learn it.

Families know it won’t be perfect and there will be bumps on the road, but they make a bargain: They support public schools, and public schools support their children. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes, but it hasn’t changed the fundamental agreement.

COVID-19 is a serious disease, and some people understandably feel it’s too risky for schools to be open. This includes some parents who can work from home and supervise their children’s online learning as well as some teachers and their supporters. A survey in August by the local teachers’ union found that most MCCSC teachers wouldn’t be comfortable in the classroom if the county’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests were over 6%. A majority also wanted more clarity about reopening decisions.

But COVID-19 positivity rates, as compiled by the Indiana Department of Health, have been confusing and misleading. When Indiana University instituted a massive testing program for its returning students, thousands more tests from Monroe County were reported to the state. In some cases, positive tests were recorded much faster than negative results. The county’s seven-day positivity rate, which was 2% in August, ballooned to 10% earlier this month, then fell back to 3.3% by today.

Given the uncertainty and the spread of the virus among some groups of IU students, it’s not surprising there has been considerable discomfort with in-person school. There should be just as much discomfort with the fact that students, especially young children, special-needs students and children from low-income families, are not well served by doing school online.

Families are not entirely comfortable either. Many don’t see a choice: they have to work outside the home to pay the rent or mortgage and buy groceries. Others concluded school is the best place for their children. They know there are risks, not only to children and school staff but to themselves and their relatives. They know that school comes with face coverings and limits on personal contact. But they balance those risks and drawbacks against the benefits of live, in-person school.

MCCSC staff worked long and hard to develop plans to reopen schools in ways that prioritize health concerns. A large committee of school officials, parents, teachers and health experts created metrics for when schools should operate in person. Decisions are reevaluated as conditions change.

I’m grateful to the school board and administration for giving families the option to send students back to school. I’m especially grateful to the teachers and staff who are making it work safely. And I’m guessing the 70% of MCCSC families who are sending their children to school are grateful too.

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