I’m watching my third grader ride her bike out the living room window while I work. I’m equal parts enchanted by her imagination and saddened by it. It didn’t used to be that way. Back when school and friends took up a majority of her days, this independent, imaginative play was a balanced cacophony – social butterfly during weekdays, solo enchantress on weeknights and weekends.
Now, I see her isolated childhood sliding by in slow motion; the days endless, the pandemic a long tunnel we can’t yet see out of. You’d think I’d be part of the rallying cry to open up the schools, but I’m not.
In an ideal world, opening schools is what everyone wants, sure. But this isn’t an ideal world and it certainly won’t be in a few weeks’ time. Considering in-person instruction as cases continue to climb is unfathomable.
Vietnam recently evacuated 80,000 people from a city because three people tested positive for Covid-19. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Texas alone reported more than 1,000 Covid-related deaths in less than a week and school districts all over the US are debating plans for in-person instruction. It seems like federal and local leaders are hinging the country’s economic recovery on whether teachers and students survive when we throw them all into buildings together. But teachers and students aren’t expendable economic experiments.
I live in Michigan, where early on in the pandemic, our state was one of the top 10 for confirmed Covid-19 cases. In mid-June, Michigan began relaxing stay-at-home orders as cases began to flatten. But, like much of the rest of the country, cases here have begun to climb again.
In early July, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced an executive order that required enforcement of a mandate that people wear masks when they are in public starting July 13. Two weeks before the enforcement order, my teenager resumed drivers ed, where his instructor didn’t wear a mask at all while he taught. By the end of the week of instruction, none of the students did either. I’ve seen on a small scale how fruitless personal protective equipment efforts can be in a classroom and I’m deeply worried about the impacts to teachers, children and the greater community if schools reopen in the fall.
When this all began in March, districts around the country scrambled to make sure that students had the things they needed to succeed at home. The day after schools closed, my kid’s district had meals available at satellite locations for students who rely on them. They obtained Chromebooks for students who did not have computers at home, and over the summer they collaborated with the public library and other local funders to offer hotspots to families without internet access.
Necessities like access to food, technology and internet were essentials for remote instruction in the spring. As cases continued to rise into the summer, preparation for the start of the school year should have been focused on making it possible for safe remote learning to be the primary vehicle for education. What kind of equitable, robust online learning systems, community support networks, and childcare options could have been meaningfully coordinated if remote learning weren’t considered a contingency plan?
While my family’s income has been less reliable since the pandemic began, we are privileged in the sense that my partner and I both work from home. We have the ability to abruptly adjust our work schedules and split up our time to support our kids’ at-home learning.
Not everyone has that ability, though. Pushing decisions about how and where school will begin until weeks before the start of the school year, like many districts in Michigan have done, will leave many families at a loss for what to do about childcare and for some, continued lost income. Families need time to prepare for what learning in the fall will look like.
The irony of the situation can be seen in the school board meetings and parent input sessions that I’m invited to attend. They’re held remotely because no one would think to pack dozens of people into a room together as Covid-19 cases continue to rise. Unless we’re talking about students in a classroom, that is. Somehow, for the good of the economy, we’re all expected to walk this delicate tightrope, where maintaining health and safety looks one way for the entire population and another for students and teachers.
People refuse to wear masks during a 30-minute shopping excursion. Is this really a battle we expect teachers and staff to engage in on buses and narrow hallways and classrooms? These are unfair burdens to put on school staff. My family hasn’t come out of quarantine even though our state has “opened up” and we surely won’t do it in the fall. Isolation is bad for kids, yes. But, right now, I’m far more worried about complications from a deadly virus. So are teachers, who are begging districts to pursue remote-only learning in the fall.
According to Gov. Whitmer, Michigan is on a trajectory to move back to Phase 3 if cases continue to increase, which would eliminate even the possibility that schools could reopen. Remote learning isn’t going to be just an option or Plan B, it’ll likely again be the only viable option for most places in the country – if not by August, then soon after. Cases are climbing and we haven’t even hit the second wave yet.
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If remote learning in the fall will be better than what some called “crisis schooling” in the spring, districts need to put every remaining ounce of energy into making sure that teachers are set up with the resources and tech support that they need. They must work to establish optimal workflows so that families can be organized and prepared for each day without sorting through dozens of emails and setting up complicated spreadsheets to manage their kids’ time. And if districts haven’t yet made internet access and computers available to students that need them, that needs to be prioritized. If schools need to delay their start time to get these things in order, they should.
Even though I’m grieving my own kids’ isolation and seclusion, no matter what my district chooses to do, my children will continue to learn remotely when school begins. There are no perfect solutions for parents right now, but there is only one solution for schools: stay closed until the virus is contained or until there is a vaccine.