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Let's Not Panic; Schools Should Reopen

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

As I write this, some schools across the country are beginning to reopen -- albeit under serious restrictions necessitated by social distancing -- for the 2020-2021 academic year. But the reopenings are patchy and inconsistent, and there is still much opposition. For example, here in South Bend, Indiana, where I live, we were told in July that school would start -- online only -- on Aug. 12 and gradually ease back to in-person classes by Aug. 31. Yesterday, it was announced that all K-12 schools will remain online only through Oct. 5. Whether live, in-person classes will resume after that will depend upon "current health data."

It's unclear how much data is driving these decisions and how much of it is public sentiment. Teachers unions in many cities have made clear their opposition to reopening schools. But plenty of parents and families have also expressed concerns.

We are now a long way from February and March of this year when our elected leaders told us that a temporary shutdown would be necessary to "flatten the curve" and avoid overtaxing our health care resources. The implicit assumption in those initial decisions was that yes, people would continue to be infected with COVID-19. Now the mere prospect of that is making people panic about sending their children back to school.

It's evident that this coronavirus is no ordinary flu. It is serious. We don't know as much as we'd like. At this juncture, it's difficult to predict who -- other than the elderly and those with preexisting comorbidities -- might be seriously affected by the virus.

By the same token, we do know that the virus has a high survival rate. (This is strengthened by COVID-19 antibody testing in California, Connecticut and New York, which indicates that many more people have had this coronavirus than have been officially diagnosed with it -- anywhere from six to 50 times more.) And we know that children seem, consistently, to be more resistant to infection or more likely to have mild cases, or both.

We also know much more about the effectiveness -- or lack thereof -- of K-12 online education than we did last winter. And on those bases, we should honestly conclude that the risks of reopening schools (assuming that we take sensible precautions) are far outweighed by the costs of keeping K-12 education online.

An April 6 article from The New York Times provides statistics that should concern us all. In the city of Los Angeles, for example, 13 percent of all high school students (15,000) had had no online contact with their teachers nearly a month after online learning started, and one-third (40,000 students) were not participating regularly in online classes. The Chicago Sun-Times published data at the end of the spring semester showing that 40 percent of Chicago's public school students participated in online learning two days a week or less, despite 93 percent having access to the internet and a computer. Nader Issa, author of the Sun-Times piece, summarized the data, saying, "In the best circumstances, remote learning has been an uneven and dubious replacement for in-person instruction; and in the worst, it has left students entirely disconnected from their teachers."

That same dynamic was playing out in the inner-city schools of other major cities as well as those in rural areas of the country. Some school districts reported fewer than half of their students were participating in e-learning. Teachers in Cleveland reported that 30 percent to 40 percent of their students had no reliable access to the internet. Schools in Washington, D.C., simply stopped taking attendance.

Nor was the data provided exclusively by teachers and administrators; NPR published a survey of American teenagers in April in which 41 percent of those who responded (and 47 percent of those attending public school) said that they had done no classwork at all since schools moved online.

The inability to be in a facility dedicated to learning, where instruction is conducted by people who are trained to provide it, can mean that little-to-no learning takes place at all. And these are not temporary setbacks. Experts in K-12 education warn that the gaps in children's education created by sporadic or inconsistent online learning can have serious implications for years to come. How can students advance to the next grade, where classes will build on materials they never learned (or never learned well enough)? Some school districts opted to promote students to the next grade whether they participated in online learning or not; how will these students perform in school this year, even if classes are in person? Will they ever be taught the missing content? How do teachers effectively teach to groups of students with even larger academic disparities?

And what will happen if half a semester of online "learning" becomes a semester-and-a-half? A year? More?

Unsurprisingly, disadvantaged students are more negatively affected than are children from economically secure families. These are precisely the children whose education we should be trying harder to ensure; their families do not have the resources to compensate for shortfalls in their education, and the risks associated with lack of education are even higher for them.

The same is true for health and nutrition. For many students in low-income circumstances, meals provided by schools represent their primary source of daily nutrition.

And all children are negatively by the lack of physical activity associated with online learning. We're already aware of the developmental dangers associated with "too much screen time." That is even harder to police when school is now "on screen" and physical education classes and youth sports are canceled.

Yes, the virus is frightening. But it's going to be with us for a long time, and we cannot keep schools shuttered. An entire generation of undereducated young people should frighten us more.

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