Even as COVID-19 cases in the United States are rising, in many states exorbitantly, the President and like-minded governors are putting pressure on, and in some cases ordering, schools to open for in-person learning in the fall. For some school districts, this means opening in just a few weeks, as many states begin their school year in early August.
In making the argument, the President cited countries like Germany, Denmark, and Norway as examples of schools being opened with no problems. Except there is a problem with this example, a huge one: COVID cases in Germany hover around 298, 10 in Denmark, and 11 in Norway. Currently, the U.S. has confirmed around 3.5 million cases overall, 133,666 deaths, and on July 11 alone more than 70,000 people tested positive – and these are just the cases that are confirmed.
There are valid arguments for re-opening schools for in-person learning, including that distance learning is not as effective, that many students’ mental and emotional well-being is negatively impacted by not being in school, and that parents who must work outside of the home either won’t be able to go back or have no choice and cannot leave their young children alone all day.
My son’s school sent out a survey last week that asked three questions: 1. What grade is your child going into? 2. What mode of instruction do you prefer, in-person or distance learning? 3. Do you have a need for after school care? I knew what I wanted to check for question number 2, but my son is 13 and I felt it important to give him an opportunity to weigh in on his own education. To my surprise, and relief, he chose distance learning. I was surprised because he has a lot of friends, and so naturally I thought he would choose in-person so he could see them every day again. Turns out the idea of having to wear a mask for six hours straight, social distance, and adhere to other strict guidelines outweighed the joy of seeing friends. Fortunately, his Catholic School successfully pivoted to online learning in record time (as I would expect for tuition of over $6,000 per year), and my son did well with it. I know this is not the case for millions of schools and children.
Those of us who are able to telecommute from home, and therefore continue to earn a salary and work safely, whose children’s schools did a good job of distance learning, whose kids had no issues with distance learning, whose children are older and self-sufficient learners, and who don’t have children with special needs cannot fully fathom how difficult this pandemic has been for so many families. I try to remember this, even as everything in me screams no to sending America’s children back to brick and mortar schools, that our politicians are sacrificing our children’s, their teachers’, and families’ health and very lives in an effort to get back to “normal.”
What will “normal” look like? There will be masks, desks spread out, possibly plexiglass partitions at each desk. Perhaps staggered schedules. Maybe a blend of online and in-person learning.
But what happens when one elementary school teacher or one student tests positive for COVID? All of the students in that class will need to quarantine for 14 days, as will everyone who came in contact with the teacher and students. What if one high school teacher or student tests positive? Then will 150 or so students, their families, and everyone else they came in contact with have to quarantine? What if the lunch staff or a maintenance person or the principal tests positive? What if there is a massive outbreak that effectively shuts the school down and teachers and students are too sick to pivot quickly again to distance learning?
There are too many “what ifs”, too many unknown variables, no way to prepare for every single possible scenario. This virus changes week-to-week, day-to-day, and we have zero way of knowing how the situation will continue to evolve.
The only way to ensure that learning continues uninterrupted as safely as possible is for schools to offer distance learning only. This means that some parents may not be able to go back to work, longer and extended unemployment benefits, additional stimulus packages, extended grace periods on student loans, rents, mortgages, and the economy will continue to lag. All of the things the President and like-minded governors do not want to see, hear about, or support.
I don’t know what is the best answer. I only know that we are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic with no end in sight, and there is no way my child will be a sacrificial lamb for a government that doesn’t seem to care if he lives or dies.