The Education Conundrum

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson | Unsplash
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson | Unsplash

What do Betsy De Vos, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Dr. Anthony Fauci have in common? At some point in the not-so-distant past, they have all advocated for the reopening of schools.


In early March 2020, nearly every school in the nation closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Where local control rules the day in education, it was a rarity to have such unity in response to something. Though if anything were to inspire such unity, a pandemic would do it.


If closing was so universal, and officials on both sides of the aisle are calling for opening, why is restarting school so hard? As someone in education for 25 years, allow me to offer some thoughts.


One of President Biden’s core promises was that schools would reopen within the first 100 days of his presidency. However, as of yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki walked back on that claim, saying that the new goal is to have 50% of schools have “some teaching” in person “at least one day a week.” It is a dramatic shift and is exemplary of the momentous task we as a country have ahead of us.


The Argument for Opening

Let’s start with the data. Some studies show that hospitalizations do not go up when schools reopen. Others show that children are less susceptible and make the leap that therefore schools are safe to open. In addition, many schools have already opened and done it safely, so the statistics largely support going back to school in person.


But data is not the only consideration. There are the mission-based reasons: schools serve their communities and provide childcare. For many parents to continue working, schools need to be open.


However, in my opinion, the most compelling of all of the arguments relate to students’ mental health and well-being. In a survey by Young Minds, a whopping 80% of respondents said that the pandemic made their mental health worse. This is no surprise to anyone trying to survive the pandemic, but our children are in crisis, and they desperately need the social-emotional support systems that schools provide.


The Argument Against Opening

The very same studies pointing in support of reopening have also been used to argue schools should not reopen. It is complicated, but the gist of it is that where hospitalizations in the community were high, there was more concern about opening schools (you can see where it would be hard to use studies and data to make the decisions). Accompanying the data, there is a real fear. While children may not be as susceptible to COVID-19 as teachers, in one Kenosha, WI school, there was a teacher who allegedly contracted COVID-19 at school and gave it to her husband who subsequently died.


These are serious concerns. For years students and educators alike have had to beat back the fear of school shootings, which are incredibly rare. Yet we do lockdown drills every year to train for such a possibility. How is it we can ask teachers and students to come back to school without the assurance that as much attention is being paid to COVID-19 safety?


What Makes Schools Different

Sometime in mid-August educators began to hear certain tropes, comparing teachers to grocery store employees, saying they do not care about their students and others narratives. Similar comparisons were made to hospital workers, retail workers, and other essential roles with high flow traffic.


Here is the difference: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average size of an elementary school is around 450 students. Middle school is closer to 600 and high school is around 750. Add about 60-100 staff members to that and you have anywhere between 510-850 people in one place for 7-8 consecutive hours. That is what makes it different from a grocery store.


What we know of COVID-19 is that the aerosol drops hang longer in the air if an infected person is there for an extended time. Hospital workers exposed for long periods of time are now given copious amounts of PPE and most have excellent ventilation systems. People stay in grocery stores for about 30 minutes and then leave. I don’t know if you have noticed, but most school buildings are older, and they aren’t known for great ventilation.


Schools are different, and they need a different approach. More importantly, they need money to make reopening safe, and most schools don’t have money to spare.


What Should We Do?

We now know a lot more about COVID-19. We know that masks are vital. Six feet or more distance is important. Handwashing and regular cleaning mitigate risk. Eating and drinking are high-risk activities. Ventilation is important. These known mitigation factors need to be the guiding principles when looking to open schools. When we start to see the spread, we need to be able to trace it and stop it.


I love Dr. Fauci, yet the NBC News headline that proclaimed, “Dr. Fauci backs CDC’s school reopening plan: ‘We need to try and get the children back to school” made me cringe. It isn’t that black and white. Dig into that recommendation and what Fauci is saying is that in order to reopen, schools have to enact each of the operating principles listed above. This takes resources – money.


In many districts, classrooms aren’t big enough to hold the students and maintain six feet of distance, so they need bigger spaces or creative ways to group students safely. Masks need to be purchased (because kids occasionally forget to wear shoes to school, so you know they will forget their masks). With the current political climate, districts need to engage in significant PR campaigns to promote mask-wearing to get community buy-in. Teachers and secretaries need plexiglass shields so when kids walk up to their desks, they are protected. Hallways need to be marked for one way traffic flow to avoid crowding. Extensive PPE is needed for teachers who work with medically fragile students so both teachers and students are safe. Technology is needed to support students who are quarantined (as is bound to happen), and teachers need to be trained on how to assist those students who are remote while meeting the needs of in-person students without burning out. Schools need systems to report and trace positive cases to prevent spread in schools. Do you have any idea how much hand sanitizer elementary students can and will use in a day?


And that is the shortlist. One school district in Wisconsin of about 5,000 students spent 2.4 million dollars to be able to open safely.


Opening schools is a wicked and complex problem. Federal guidance can help, but there is absolutely no one size fits all solution to this problem. Vaccination rates are on the rise, and that is a wonderful thing. In many states, educators are in the first or second phase of the vaccination plan, but vaccinations alone aren’t enough. (In fact, on February 4, 2021, the CDC cited data that said schools can safely reopen before teachers are vaccinated.) There may be no single solution, but there is one thing that will lead to the solution for schools.


You want schools to open? Put your money where your mouth is.


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