August 09, 2020

The Question We Should Be Asking About School Reopening

Everyone is asking me the same question: Should schools reopen? Actually, the data on this is pretty clear: Yes, kids across the board do better in school. But the question we really should be asking is this: What will we do when one kid in school —even just one — tests positive? Nobody seems to have an answer.

It’s the age-old adage attributed to the great World War II general Omar Bradley: “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” Getting kids in school may be the right strategy, but let’s spend a few minutes talking logistics.

This spring, we saw what happened when communities around the country grew concerned about the virus. They shut schools down, many well ahead of any kids actually bringing the virus to the classroom. That was the right decision then as we had no safeguards in place, but even with the modeset social distancing and physical barriers being proposed to date, it’s hard to imagine parents and teachers feeling comfortable keeping kids in class once a schoolmate gets the virus.

When you game this out, there’s more: What happens when a child brings the virus home to a health care worker or grocery store worker who brings it to work? What happens when one teacher gets sick and the virus spreads among the faculty? How will childcare work for teachers like my sister who live in one school district but teach in another if standards are not the same? And how are we even going to get kids to school in the first place when social distancing means that each school bus can only handle a handful of children?

These are questions that school superintendents are grappling with this summer as experts demand we get kids in school. Some are surmountable, like perhaps we have to stagger openings so buses can run in shifts, but the complexity is why it’s taking so long for schools to release plans.

And few experts seemed to have moved beyond the first day of school to that key question: What happens next? Inevitably, even in Massachusetts where virus numbers are low but ticking back up again, some kids and teachers will get COVID-19.

These questions beg for federal leadership and one, statewide decision on schools. They also say this: If schools reopen but have to shut down eventually, we should put our primary effort into preparing for more months of remote learning because — like it or not — it’s probably inevitable.

There is universal agreement that our kids benefit from being in school. It’s far easier to learn in a classroom than when trying to focus on a video call with dozens of other students among the distractions at home. Many kids don’t have reliable internet access or need to borrow a parent’s phone to get online.

Reopening schools fully would remove a major barrier preventing parents from returning to work — a barrier that has disproportionately affected women and communities of color during this pandemic. Many parents can’t drive their kids to school when the school bus doesn’t come, and most parents don’t have the luxury of being able to afford childcare while they have to work. And we all learned that childcare itself becomes hard when the virus spreads. Some people have nearby relatives who can quarantine themselves as well, but not everyone is so lucky.

A local superintendent pointed out to me that at least getting kids to meet their teachers and classmates would go a long way to establishing the relationships needed for successful learning. A kid is much more likely to pay attention to a teacher online that he or she has met in person. Therefore, it probably makes sense to carefully reopen schools initially to build those relationships.

There’s also the challenge of emotionally or intellectually disabled kids who need to learn in person. And what about the kids who have no broadband access at home at all? It probably makes sense to reserve precious classroom space for these kids exclusively — those who need it more than most.

Whatever reopening occurs needs to be done with caution. The teachers’ unions are right that we are not yet prepared, and fully reopening or pursuing “hybrid models” without the proper safeguards will only hasten an inevitable shutdown.

A smarter choice is to treat classroom space like we treat our hospital ICUs: reserved for those who need it most. And since many of the kids without broadband access are concentrated in cities or certain neighborhoods, a statewide plan would enable the same success we saw with Massachusetts hospitals this spring: spreading out kids to other schools if necessary to balance the load. We’re not going to accomplish that when each district has its own plan.

The virus is a national problem, and as a member of your federal delegation, I will be the first to say that the federal government should do more. Fellow Democrats and I are fighting to massively increase aid to schools and state and local governments. We should have national standards for containing the virus, as well as national standards for how to reopen schools safely. But the reality with this president and a Republican-controlled Senate is that this much-needed support and guidance are unlikely to come. Even with the largest stimulus bill in American history, the federal government has sent K-12 schools less than a third of the relief funding it provided during the 2008-2009 recession.

Your Congressional delegation will keep fighting for more funding and better national leadership, but in the meantime, here’s what we should do in Massachusetts:

1. Establish statewide standards. In the absence of federal leadership, at least provide some universal guidance for Massachusetts. The virus is a national problem, but we’re treating school closings like we’re preparing for a snowstorm. Asking educators and administrators to play the role of public health experts is wrong, and it prevents the allocation of scarce resources across the Commonwealth to meet this unprecedented time when, we should know, we’re all in it together.

2. Reopen cautiously and selectively: Have kids meet their classmates and teachers, but only keep kids in school who absolutely need to be there. Reduce risk, less by investing in expensive physical safeguards and more buses, but instead by reducing numbers. This not only preserves limited resources for making remote learning more accessible, it’s also the easiest way to keep kids and teachers safe. Be ready to shift kids around to other schools so those who require classroom space can access it safely.

3. Prepare for reality: Even schools that reopen will likely shut down at some point. Therefore we have to be careful of pouring our limited resources into preparing for in-class learning that’s unlikely to happen — or at least, unlikely to persist. Let’s instead focus our resources on making remote learning as effective as possible.

As a commonwealth, we also have to ask whether it’s made sense to reopen gyms, bars, and restaurants if the most important goal should be getting kids back to school. These businesses generate revenue for towns and states struggling to pay for unemployment and other services. Opening for the summer tourism season helped people make ends meet. But as cases rise again in Massachusetts, we are wasting vital time in the weeks before the school year when we could be letting the virus die out.

Until we have a vaccine, or at least until we have a treatment and a president who is serious about tracing and testing, we won’t have a good answer for what we do when our kids get sick at school. So, if we do send them back, rather than pretending things will be fine, or pushing off the elephant-in-the-room decision for another day, we should plan for another shutdown now.

And who knows? The best-case scenario is we get lucky, the virus is contained, and we don’t have to close schools again. But at least we’ll be prepared for reality if we do.

By:  Seth Moulton
Source: Gloucester TImes