Gadfly on the Wall: Parental Choice Won’t Save Us From Unsafe School Reopening Plans
I am the parent of a public school student.
And I have a choice.
I get to decide whether my daughter will go back to school in-person or online.
That’s the only thing that should matter to me.
At least, that’s what the superintendent of my home district told me when I went before school directors last week asking them to reconsider administration’s unsafe reopening plan.
At McKeesport Area School District (MASD), Dr. Mark Holtzman and administration propose unlocking the doors for half day in-person classes Mondays through Fridays.
Kids would be split into two groups – one attending in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. That way, with buildings at half capacity, there would be enough physical space for social distancing. The remainder of the time, kids would be learning online.
However, if you don’t approve, you can opt out.
Any parent who is uncomfortable with this plan could keep his or her children home and have them participate in the district’s existent cyber program.
The board hasn’t voted on the proposal yet. It won’t do so until Wednesday.
But as I stood up there at the podium last week outlining all the ways this scheme was unsafe and asking my duly-elected representatives to instead consider distance learning for all children, Holtzman told me to be happy I could choose whatever I wanted for my own child and sit back down.
Which brings up the question – is parental choice enough?
Is the fact that I can choose for my daughter the only concern I should have?
Thankfully, no one is forcing me to subject my child to in-person classes. If I don’t think they’re safe, I can keep her away and still have access to an education for her through the Internet.
What else do I want?
First of all, the quality of education offered by the district cyber program is not the same as the district could provide if all students were enrolled in virtual classes.
Dr. Holtzman has outlined what that would look like if school buildings were shut down by the governor or the district were overcome with sick students, teachers and/or family.
Teachers would provide synchronous classes online through video platforms like Zoom. Students would get to interact virtually with each other and their teachers.
By contrast, the existent cyber program is asychronous. Students watch videos and do assignments at their own pace, but human contact and social interaction – even via the Internet – is much harder to come by.
Let’s be honest – both options pale in comparison to face-to-face instruction. But the kind of instruction students will receive in-person during this global pandemic will not be face-to-face. Students will interact behind masks and plexiglass barriers under an ever present shadow of fear and menace. Under the proposed MASD plan, teachers would have a mere 20 minutes a period to try to get something done other than just taking role, attempting to get students to comply with safety precautions and calming their fears.
Both cyber options are preferable because they avoid these problems. But one of them – the synchronous option with a dedicated class and a teacher behind the curriculum – is superior to the one being offered.
Is it selfish to want the better plan for my daughter?
Should I just be glad I have a choice at all? Should I put the individual good of my child aside for the good of others?
No. Because administration’s plan is not in the best interests of other children, either.
If we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick.
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found more than 97,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 just in the last two weeks of July.
To put that in context, out of more than 5 million people diagnosed with the virus in the US, approximately 338,00 are children.
And nearly a third of those cases have come as we’ve reopened schools and summer camps, as we’ve increasingly exposed kids to the virus.
Children typically had low infection rates because schools were closed in March and kids were quarantined before the virus had spread through most of the country.
Since June, there have been numerous outbreaks at summer schools in Massachusetts, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, and Hawaii, among others. And with some schools now starting their academic year, outbreaks have been even more numerous.
I live in Allegheny County – the western Pennsylvania region around Pittsburgh – where Covid cases have spiked.
Many local school districts like East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg have passed plans to start the year with classes being conducted 100% online. South Allegheny and Duquesne City Schools just passed such plans in the last few days. And the biggest district in this part of the state – Pittsburgh Public Schools – has done the same.
If the virus is present in the community – as county health department data shows – opening the schools to students also opens them to Coronavirus.
But with the schools open, the virus will no longer be confined to just a few homes. It will come with kids to class and spread among students and staff before it’s brought to their homes as well.
That’s how epidemics work. Opening the schools will spread the virus throughout the entire community.
And that will affect me, too, regardless of whether I choose a cyber option for my daughter or not.
When I go to the local grocery store, gas up my car, even go for a walk – I will be more likely to come into contact with someone infected with the virus and get sick.
I can make the safe decision for my family but still suffer the consequences of the irresponsible decisions of others – especially school directors.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be my own local school board. The decisions of school directors in neighboring districts affects me, too.
After all, in my part of the state, school districts are pretty small geographically – not nearly as large as most counties. There are 42 public districts in Allegheny County, alone. So it should be no surprise that I routinely travel through several different districts just running day-to-day errands.
MASD school directors can decide to keep buildings closed (and I hope they will) but if a district just one township or borough over decides differently, we will suffer the consequences in McKeesport, too.
This is why issues of public safety are usually decided at the county, state or federal level. These decisions affect all of us, but these days no one wants to take the responsibility.
It doesn’t even make sense democratically.
Since I don’t live in more than one district, I don’t get a say in what school directors at neighboring districts decide. I just have a say in what happens in my tiny portion of the world. But the consequences are not nearly as respectful of our man-made borders.
For instance, I work as a teacher at a neighboring district. But since I do not live there, I am barred from speaking at the board meetings unless I am invited to speak as an employee of the district.
I can give a report as part of the safety commission if invited by administrators, but I can’t otherwise sign up to speak as an employee concerned about how district policies affects me, my students or their families.
I’m a believer in local control, but sometimes control can be too localized.
This is why you haven’t heard much from many educators. If they’re allowed to speak, they’re often afraid of how doing so will make them a target for reprisals. If they can get their union to back them, they can speak collectively that way, but otherwise, they have no pathway to being heard at all.
As a parent, I get a choice for my child in my district.
But what choice do teachers have – especially if they don’t live where they teach?
If school directors decide to reopen to in-person classes, they’re forcing educators to decide between their employment and their own families. If teachers return to the classroom with their students in a physical setting, they risk not only their own lives but that of their friends and families.
That concerns me even with my choices as a parent.
I’ve had some outstanding teachers. My daughter loves her teachers. Is it okay if I don’t want to see them get sick and their lives cut short? If I worry about my own chances of surviving the pandemic and the demands of my employer?
Finally, what about people of color? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says African Americans and other minorities are hospitalized from the virus four to five times more often than white people.
I think their lives matter. But as minorities and people subjected to systemic inequalities, they get less of a say in policy. Should decisions that disproportionately impact their health really be up to a committee? Doesn’t their right to life surpass the decisions making abilities of a handful of elected officials or even middle and upper class parents?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful I have choices as a parent for how my daughter is educated.
But that doesn’t overcome my concerns about a bad school reopening strategy.
School directors need to make reopening decisions that are in the best interests of everyone because we’re all in this together.
That’s what so many folks seem to be forgetting.
Yes, even from a completely selfish point of view, unsafe school reopening will affect each of us.
But epidemics spread through communities. Only communities can effectively combat them.
Dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller fiefdoms only empowers the virus. If we all try to fight Covid-19 individually, we will lose.
We have to understand that what’s good for our friends and neighbors is in our individual interest, too.
We have to care about our fellow human beings.
That’s why I will continue to fight these unsafe plans and ask school directors to reopen schools virtually.
That’s the path I’ve chosen.
September 9, 2020