Opinion: It’s too early to go back to school

The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to address educational disparities.

In just a few short weeks the 2020-2021 school year will begin. As parents pore over their districts’ recently released “return to learn” plans (many of which have been in the works since spring), there is still an incredible uncertainty as COVID-19 infections skyrocket toward 5 million cases nationally. Although a lot of people have devoted time, energy and talent to creating these plans, returning to normal as soon as many people have hoped for is just not feasible.

It’s evident that, since COVID-related restrictions have loosened, infections and hospitalizations have increased. Many districts have already announced amendments to their original starting dates, and it’s looking like the idea of starting widespread in-person learning in August is just fantastical.

By now you have probably heard criticism of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s radio comments about students returning this fall. During an interview on the Marc Cox Morning Show in St. Louis, Parson said, “These kids gotta get back to school. They’re at the lowest risk possible and if they do get COVID-19 — which they will, and they will when they go to school — they’re not going to the hospitals, they’re not going to have to sit in doctors’ offices; they’re going to go home, and they’re gonna get over it, and most of it all proves out to be that way if you look at the science of it.”

Even if healthy kids can be exposed and get over it, some children have become seriously ill and died. And let’s not forget their caretakers in some cases are grandparents, the immunocompromised and single parents (some of whom are teachers and administrators), and may not have the same outcomes. What happens when caretakers aren’t as easily able to ward off the infection? Who will get kids to school then? Is there a plan for that?

It’s funny how people pick and choose the parts of science that support their political agenda. We know by the science that you don’t have to have symptoms to pass it on, and even if young people aren’t typically affected the same way as those in other demographics, their gathering in large numbers still increases chances of spreading the virus. Should parents adopt car-sanitizing practices and temperature checks as their kids enter the car at the end of the day? If the whole family gets sick, then what?

[pullquote-1-center] The learning environment will also be affected by hyper-awareness and sanitizing vigilance during the school day, as well as teachers’ added responsibilities of policing gatherings, and dealing with unforeseen issues, like keeping kids from trading their masks because “so-and-so has a cooler one.” (You know it will happen.) What will discipline look like in these scenarios?

Kids going to school just to be in the building isn’t necessarily maximizing learning.

Admittedly, a student’s home — for a variety of reasons — may not be conducive to a consistent and routine learning environment either, and traumas happen there too. What does equity look like here? I agree that lost socialization and instruction has disastrous consequences, but opening up too early feels like we are just extending those consequences.

Let’s face it — all of 2020 has looked completely different from the first seven months of last year, and we are anxious in a lot of ways to get our lives back. But here’s a reminder: We are in a pandemic, and try as we might, things are not going to be the way they used to be, at least not at this point. We have to embrace that.

We do need to figure out what learning, socialization, closing achievement gaps, mental health and student meals look like through this pandemic. But some of these are wider problems directly connected to the intersections of inequity that were evident through economic chasms before the coronavirus. Maybe this is a golden opportunity to address some of those disparities?

And shouldn’t resources be focused on those who have been disproportionately affected since the beginning of this pandemic and may have experienced consequential trauma?

How can we re-imagine holistic educational approaches that intersect with home stability and create environments where all students can thrive? The reality that a lot of these “return to learn” plans don’t mention is that there are specific lives and young minds at stake.

The fallout of coronavirus does not break evenly, and kids returning to school too early doesn’t just put them at risk for disease and trauma, but affects all those they come in contact with.