Jersey Jazzman: The School Reopening Gamble
In the next week or so, schools districts all over the country will reopen their buildings as their new year begins. During our pre-service training, a teacher colleague of mine described the process as a “grand experiment.”
But he’s wrong; it’s not an experiment. It’s a gamble.
An experiment, by definition, is a controlled, scientific procedure designed to gain knowledge. When a researcher conducts an experiment, they try, as much as possible, to control for outside factors that may affect an outcome. The goal is to see relationships between causes and effects, and better understand how the world works.
A gamble, on the other hand, is a risky action taken with the hopes of getting a favorable result. A gambler isn’t trying to learn anything – all they want is a win.
America’s school reopening plans aren’t experiments; we aren’t trying to learn more about how COVID-19 spreads, or its effects. We are, instead, making a huge bet: we’re hoping that we’ll get the benefits of sending children into school buildings without making the pandemic worse.
The problem, however, is that a good gambler always knows the odds. Before placing a bet, a gambler weighs the risks of losing against the rewards of winning. Las Vegas is full of stories of sad, self-deluded gamblers who never took the time to calculate exactly what they were putting at risk before they rolled the dice.
It appears to this teacher that America, true to form, is acting like those reckless high-rollers: we’re putting all of our chips on schools reopening without ever stopping to calculate the odds. We should, instead, take a moment, before placing our bets, to weigh the rewards and the risks of reopening schools
The rewards are actually more meager than what many policymakers appear to think they will be. At best, reopening buildings means only a partial return to school for many students. While some school districts have gone all in and are opening five days a week for a full day, many are opting for a “hybrid” model, like the latest proposal for New York City.
In this model, students are divided into two, or even three, cohorts that rotate in-person schooling with remote instruction. At most, these students will attend school a dozen times a month; more likely it will be less, thanks to holidays.
Obviously, this does nothing to solve the child care crisis many pundits and politicians have cited as the reason to return to school buildings. And even if schools went back to full-time, in-person instruction, working parents would still need childcare solutions for the other hours when they are at work, because school hours almost never cover a parent’s work hours.
Some proponents of school reopening have argued that schools serve other functions besides education: they screen students for abuse, provide free meals to disadvantaged students, and deliver instruction to students with special needs. Unquestionably, that’s true – but must school buildings be open to provide these services? School districts were working to solve many of these issues last spring, when instruction was completely remote; for example, many districts started providing school meals through delivery or pickup.
Furthermore, states like New Jersey are allowing parents to opt their children out of in-person schooling altogether. So schools are going to have to check on students’ welfare and provide free meals remotely anyway.
The issue of special education is more difficult: some students have needs that are so profound they can’t be served by on-line learning. It is, admittedly, not always easy to determine which students fall into this category — but it’s not all students. Why not open up the schools, then, just for those students with those needs? Why crowd students whose needs could be met on line into classrooms?
Which brings up what reopening proponents appear to believe is their strongest case for reopening: remote, on-line learning is never as good as in-person learning. As a teacher, I’d usually agree… except these proponents are making the wrong comparison. What we should be asking is whether remote learning now is better than part-time, in-person learning in a pandemic.
When teachers were thrown into on-line learning last spring, they were forced to make up remote-based lesson plans on the spot, with little training or preparation. Things are different now: many teachers (myself included) gained experience and feel more comfortable on a digital platform. Of course, internet access remains a serious problem, one that isn’t going away any time soon. And most teachers would agree that good in-person instruction could never be replaced by remote learning.
But in-person learning in a pandemic is also highly problematic. Forcing young children to wear masks for hours, policing social distancing guidelines, teaching some children in person while others are remote… this is hardly an ideal teaching environment. How much positive social development will children experience in conditions like these? How much real learning is going to get done?
Those are the rewards, such as they are. What about the risks?
We must start by acknowledging that we still have much to learn about COVID-19’s long-term effects. What we do know is troubling: in addition to the risk of death, some patients show a range of serious symptoms months after initial exposure. Children appear to be susceptible to these effects. It is true that the health risks for children appear smaller than those for the adult population; however, there is still substantial risk, especially for children of color.
Further, we know that children are carriers of the coronavirus, and have the potential to be spreaders. Which means that even if they do not suffer severe symptoms after exposure, their families and their teachers may.
Some have suggested the fears of American children spreading COVID-19 are overblown, as other countries have managed to open schools without seeing large outbreaks. I’d first point out that many of these other countries’ students spend less time in school than American children, which may decrease the chances of transmission.
In addition, American schools are not like those in other countries. Our chronic underinvestment in school facilities has left us with many schools that are crowded and have inadequate HVAC systems. One-fifth of our schools have no nursing care; another one-fifth only have part-time nurses. Neither of these issues are being addressed, as Washington has not allocated any additional funds to make schools safer or cleaner during the pandemic.
And again: many of the children who return to school buildings will do so only for a few days a week. If they spend the other days in childcare, they may be exposed to two different sets of peers and two different sets of adults overseeing them. The current plans for schooling are therefore likely increasing the number of possible vectors for transmission.
So that’s the gamble. If we win the bet, the payoff is, at best, a highly stunted in-school experience — in many cases for only a few days a week — with, perhaps, marginally better delivery of non-academic services. But if we lose, we’ll expose many more children and educational staff to the virus, with immediate and devastating consequences for many, and potentially severe repercussions in the future.
I know children need to get back to school as soon as possible. I know that, for many, school is the one safe place in their lives. I know this generation will suffer harm the longer they are out of school. I know parents have to get back to work — and I know they really need a break.
But we have to be honest with ourselves: when we reopen schools, we are gambling with lives. Is it really worth it?
October 5, 2020