There’s no question that everyone — even most kids, if they’d admit it — want a return to normal pre-pandemic schooling. But there are many questions about exactly how to begin moving in that direction in ways that ensure the benefits outweigh danger.
Like so much we once took for granted, public K-12 education is far more vital than we realized in the humdrum world before a virus snatched the rug from under our feet. Children really do need a dependable path forward toward mastering the academic and social skills that schools provide. We really do need safe and productive settings to which children can be entrusted while parents generate the income and taxes necessary to sustain modern life. In much of the nation — including Pacific County — schools perform a myriad of other essential functions, from providing a basic nutritional foundation to instilling self confidence in the form of sporting competition and artistic achievement.
“Reading, writing and arithmetic are not even the half of it. Kids need to learn to compete and to cooperate. They need food and friendships; books and basketball courts; time away from family and a safe place to spend it,” the New York Times opined. “Parents need public schools, too. They need help raising their children, and they need to work.”
Even taking all this into account, very few of us would consider children’s deaths and debilitating illnesses to be an acceptable price for resuming normal classes this fall, as opposed to waiting for a safe and effective vaccine. Acknowledging there is no perfect safety in the world, school districts and the families they serve must do the best we can to keep kids — and ourselves — safe from the potential for more viral spread that could come from restarting something like normal classes. And it deserves to be noted that this isn’t any business of the federal government.
Although little can be said with complete certainty regarding covid-19, here are some points that stand out:
• The chances of catching coronavirus and spreading it appear to be substantially less for children under age 10 to 12. In Northwest Europe, where countries with the exception of Sweden have done a much better job of controlling the pandemic than the U.S., researchers found the risk of transmission and the number of outbreaks that could be traced back to a child were very low, the Washington Post reported. European high school and middle school students appear somewhat more likely to catch and spread the disease. (tinyurl.com/Europe-School-Reopening)
• We are kidding ourselves if we think it will be possible to maintain strict hygiene guidelines in schools. “Basically, the difficulty is enforcing social distancing among students,” a French education expert told the Post. He said distancing is hard for high school students, but especially for younger kids. “People have more or less given up on that entirely at this stage,” he said.
• To avoid the possibility of having to quarantine an entire student body when coronavirus is found in just one or a few students, English schools are organized in “class bubbles” of up to 30 and high school students in “year bubbles” of up to 240. By learning and staying together in these defined groups, outbreaks can be more easily traced and contained.
Ocean Beach School District, like others throughout the state and nation, is in the process of designing its fall reopening strategy. Superintendent Amy Huntley is posting progress updates on the district’s Facebook page (tinyurl.com/OBSD-FB). It is to be hoped the district doesn’t rely too much on face masks and six-foot physical distancing that have proven difficult to enforce even in nations that have been more successful against the virus.
In general, OBSD plans to provide a mix of in-person, online and blended classroom models. The district’s stated goal is to have students on campus as much as possible, with a priority on campus access for those most in need of it based on a variety of factors. All students will be assigned a Chromebook that they can take home.
The district is pledging, “To improve our continuous learning model to help students and families be successful when students cannot be on campus.” This worthy goal will be far easier said than done. “The limits of virtual classrooms were on painful display this spring,” the Times observed. “While some students thrived, or at least continued to learn, others faded away. Boston reported that roughly 20 percent of enrolled students never logged in. In Los Angeles, one-third of high school students failed to participate.”
There is a very real danger of students permanently falling behind, and some may never catch up if this uncertain situation drags on too long. Although local ingenuity and hard work may overcome some difficulties, this is an example of the need for serious emergency funding to provide schools with routine testing, deep cleaning, facilities enhancements and the ability to respond to unforeseen needs. As American tycoon Malcolm Forbes observed, money isn’t everything as long as you have enough. The White House should be advocating for such funds, not making empty threats to take money away.
One of the worst things that could happen in an already disastrous year would be to get a month or two into the fall academic year and have to shut the whole thing down again. Now is none too soon to take every step at the local, state and national levels to make sure school is as safe and successful as humanly possible.