Point: Monica Colbert
We can reopen schools in a way that keeps students, teachers, and the broader community safe from the dangers of COVID-19, while protecting children from another year of lost learning. The decision to return students to the classroom should be based on medical data and the needs of students, not political concerns.
COVID-19 is very real, and it has very real risks. However, the risks of keeping our students out of school far outweigh the perceived health risk of their return.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that COVID is significantly less dangerous for children. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently said that schools “should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” They are advocating this approach because they say that “the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease” from COVID and that “children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.”
I am not a medical professional, but I am a mother. As most parents do, I have always made decisions for my children’s safety and well-being based on the best information available to me at the time. In this case, the nation’s premier association for child health has made it clear that the science and data favor reopening schools. I have middle school aged students – they are old enough to safely stay home and learn remotely, but that is not in their best interest and I owe them better than “good enough.” My children and yours should have access to the very best education we can offer them.
If our primary concern truly is stopping the spread in the community more generally, the data says that closing schools is not an effective strategy. Researchers at the Global Policy Lab at the University of California-Berkeley reviewed the effectiveness of various large-scale anti-contagion efforts across the globe. They concluded that school closures in the U.S. did not help slow the spread of the virus and might have helped accelerate it.
In addition to the public health considerations, the evidence around academic and mental health outcomes for children provides a compelling reason to return to in-person learning this fall. The Common Sense Institute notes that research shows that when elementary students in other countries lost 80-90 days of instruction, students were harmed permanently, including lower educational attainment and lower labor market earnings as adults. We are talking about a permanent negative impact on a generation of students.
Furthermore, the most vulnerable students will be hardest hit if schools don’t reopen. Single family homes with a working parent, or low-income families without access to supplemental learning or access to the internet will fall behind and might never catch up. This does not even take into consideration the enormous number of students who rely on the school to meet their nutritional needs.
Reopening schools will not be a smooth path. There will likely be stops, starts, and setbacks along the way. The reality is individual schools might have to shut down if there is an outbreak, and we need to have plans to serve students who choose not to come back to school in-person. No one is under the false impression that the 2020-2021 school year will be “business as usual”, but we owe it to our kids to commit to provide the very best we can under incredibly challenging circumstances.
Counterpoint: Anton SchulzkiAfter completing my 37th year as an educator in the region, there are two universal truths. First, everyone is an educational expert, no matter how experienced, inexperienced, or genuinely knowledgeable of the education system. Second, the words “global pandemic” did not (until this year) appear in any teacher training manual or classes. Nevertheless, many educational experts call for schools to “fully open” and be “fully operational” as soon as August. There are thousands of educators in the region who want to be back with their students on a regular basis — it is, after all, what we live for is teaching our students! That said, no educator is interested in running into a classroom or school without some serious considerations given to basic questions of safety for everyone.
One of the changes in education in my career has been the move toward increasing student and staff safety within the schools. The number of tragic assaults in schools has led to serious changes in how schools are protected. Many schools have armed security guards, cameras, students and staff need to have identifications on them at all times, metal detectors and closed campuses are just a few of the safety changes brought about in the last 20 years. Why would we not take serious concerns for the safety of our school communities against COVID-19?
Our students are part of several communities within our region. Those communities begin in the homes, where parents, siblings, and extended family members live together. In addition to schools, many students are members of faith organizations, Scouts, athletic teams, bands, dance and drama ensembles, and other private and public groups. It is not just the schools that are affected by decisions to “fully open” — those decisions will reverberate within many different aspects of our region and communities. Are the educational experts willing to place the community at risk for spreading the disease just to “fully open” the schools?
Many unknown issues carry potential consequences. What happens if one teacher in a classroom contracts COVID? Is the class then quarantined for 14 days to check for transmission — if so, how will those students be taught? What happens if an outbreak occurs in a school cafeteria setting — is the school then closed? How will contact tracing occur? What happens if…the questions go on and on.
I strongly urge that the elected leaders and the educational experts consider the wide-ranging impact on all of our communities in opening the schools. Every care needs to be given to keeping our students, staff, and community safe. It might mean that school does not look like it did at the start of the 2019-20 school year — but then again, school looks very different than it did when I started teaching in 1983-84. Everyone in the community needs to be ready to help our students if it means that most everyone should wear a mask, wash and sanitize their hands, and be flexible in scheduling; then so be it. Educators have long adapted to the needs of the community, but that does not mean that we are willing to place ourselves or our students at risk.
We are willing and ready to do our part — but we need the community to do its part and support a safe reopening. That would mean educator voices should be heeded, safety protections need to be provided, equitable access to an educational program for students and families need to be adopted, and community engagement and transparency regarding COVID-19. The safety of the community is at stake.
Monica Colbert is a former Aurora Public Schools board member, a mother of two middle school students and an advocate for public education. Anton Schulzki is a long-time social studies educator in the region. The views contained here are his own and do not represent the views of organizations where he is a member.