Vaccine refusal has consequences

Not surprised but disappointed. That’s my reaction to the news that we probably won’t reach “herd immunity” for COVID-19 anytime soon. And that we may never reach it.

For much of the past year, experts were saying we could reach herd immunity, the stage where the virus stops actively spreading, when 70% or so of the population was vaccinated or immune from having had the infection. We hoped schools could return to normal by this fall, after a year and a half of disruptions.

As Shari Rudavsky writes in the Indy Star, herd immunity was the Holy Grail, the prize that would let life get back to routine. Now it seems to be out of reach. Health officials no longer promote the idea.

What happened? One factor was the rise of more contagious variants of the coronavirus that causes the disease. That meant more vaccinations would be needed to reach herd immunity. But another factor, and the one that’s truly disappointing, is that many Americans refuse to get vaccinated.

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Much is at stake in school reopening

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.

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A ‘Marshall Plan’ for schools

Economist Susan Dynarski writes in Sunday’s New York Times that America needs an ambitious initiative to help students make up for the learning that they missed this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the nation’s schools.

Teachers and students have done their best with distance learning, she writes, but “it’s time to admit that, for the vast majority of students, online learning and work sheets are no substitute for trained teachers in classrooms.”

Her proposal: a massive federal program to help students catch up, something on the order of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. It’s needed, she says, because for many students, the school year effectively ended in March.

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Coming recession could devastate school funding

A recession is coming, and the consequences are likely to be devastating for public schools – unless state and federal policymakers learn from the last downturn and take smart steps to cushion the blow.

That’s the message of “The Coronavirus Pandemic and K-12 Funding,” a new report from the Albert Shanker Institute. It points out that schools in many states never recovered from the 2007-09 recession. Now they are about to be hit with another one, and it may be worse.

“That is, many jurisdictions will be facing a possibly unprecedented funding crisis while they are still digging out from the last one,” co-authors Bruce Baker and Matthew Di Carlo write.

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Time for ‘educational recovery planning’

It was no surprise when state officials announced last week that Indiana K-12 schools would stay closed for the remainder of the school year, with instruction provided remotely. But important questions won’t be answered for some time.

First, when will schools reopen? Will there be summer school this year, or will schools stay closed until fall — or even longer? How will Indiana help students recover from losing over two months of their education? And finally, how will we pay for it?

A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that, absent an effective educational response, the pandemic “is likely to generate the greatest disruption in educational opportunity worldwide in a generation.” That’s a frightening thought.

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What if e-learning isn’t enough?

Was it just a week ago that we were worrying about whether students would have to take standardized tests when they returned to schools that had been closed by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Testing now seems to be the least of our problems. Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered Thursday that Indiana schools must close until May 1 as part of the state’s approach to fighting the spread of the new coronavirus. The order wasn’t a surprise, but it’s unsettling for students, families and educators.

It seems increasingly likely that this school year is shot. Holcomb suggested it would take a miracle for schools to reopen in May. Even if they do, that leaves just a few weeks of the semester.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, schools are moving to e-learning, with students doing their work online. That may work for some schools and some students, but not for all. Many families, and some rural parts of the state, don’t have access to the internet. And as Indiana’s experience with virtual charter schools has made clear, online learning is often a bust.

Responses to COVID-19 school closings on social media fall into two camps. Some parents are planning to effectively home-school their children and sharing resources for online learning. Others, convincingly, counsel parents to relax, enjoy their children and know they’ll eventually learn what they need to know.

Missing are the voices of parents who may not have the time or means to debate on Twitter or Facebook but are legitimately concerned about what their kids will miss from being out of school for six weeks or longer. Some questions.

  • Can schools, teachers and community organizations to take e-learning help directly to low-income neighborhoods, in the same way schools are delivering free meals?
  • Should school districts and the state plan to extend the school year?
  • Can summer school be expanded to make up what students lost in March, April and May?
  • Should we be talking about lengthening the 2020-21 school year?

Any of those options would cost money, and logistics would be challenging; but if school matters, the loss of school matters, too. Yes, these are extraordinary times – as the decision to cancel Indiana’s standardized tests makes clear. But relying exclusively on e-learning could leave our most vulnerable students behind. We shouldn’t let that happen.