Parents Face Difficult School Choices This Fall

Stephen DeAngelis

July 31, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic and the continued spread of COVID-19 has parents of school-age children in a quandary. In some cases, they face three choices: send children back to school; home school students; or participate in distance learning programs. Some school districts are eliminating the choice of sending students physically back to school and are only providing online classes.[1] Numerous factors must be considered when making decisions about how and where to educate students. Working parents face a particular conundrum about their children’s education; they may not have the luxury of choosing between options if they rely on the school system to watch over their children while they work. Many school districts are likely to offer a hybrid program combining in-class and distance learning courses. In this article, I will explore some of the considerations that must be taken into account when making decisions about re-opening schools and sending children back to school.

Re-opening schools

The Trump administration has made its position very clear — it wants schools to re-open this fall. To ensure this happens, it has threatened to withhold federal funding from any school district deciding not open schools this fall. During interviews, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has “downplayed the risk of reopening schools in the fall, a high priority of President Trump, and repeated a threat to cut funding to schools that don’t fully resume in-person learning as educators wrestle with the risk of the coronavirus.”[2] The President, Vice President, and Secretary of Education have all cited guidance issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) saying school districts should try to get students back to campuses this fall.

The guidance notes, “Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits. Beyond supporting the educational development of children and adolescents, schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. … The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”[3] The AAP, however, strongly emphasizes that school openings must be done safely. The AAP acknowledges that social distancing is essential to stem the spread of COVID-19; however, it also concedes, “There is a conflict between optimal academic and social/emotional learning in schools and strict adherence to current physical distancing guidelines.”

The Economist reports that early studies indicate keeping children at home is having an adverse affect on their health. The magazine concludes, “School not only gives structure to pupils’ lives, affording them less time to stare at a phone, spacing out their meals and prompting them to go to bed earlier. It also forces them to move around more. Break-time kickabouts and games lessons help hugely. Even the physical act of going to school — the walk to the bus stop or the cycle ride to class — adds to youngsters’ daily exercise. But even when schools reopen, many of these health benefits may remain lost, at least for a while. Parents worried about germs on public transport will be more likely to drive their offspring to school.”[4]

Emily Oster (@ProfEmilyOster), a professor of economics at Brown University, recognizes the decision to send students back to school is a tough one and “certainly involves trade-offs.”[5] She adds, “At present, the data suggests that schools might be one of the least risky kinds of institutions to reopen — and that doing so would have tremendous benefits.” Her basic argument for re-opening focuses on the fact children seem less susceptible to the virus than older people. She writes, “The incidence of serious or fatal illness among children in the United States and elsewhere is far less than that from, for example, the seasonal flu.” The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) concludes, “The evidence — scientific, health and economic — argues overwhelmingly for schools to open in the fall. … Keeping schools closed while awaiting a vaccine isn’t an acceptable alternative. You don’t need a degree in child psychology to know kids have struggled with virtual education. A Reuters analysis last month found that fewer than half of 57 public school districts were taking attendance. About a third weren’t providing required services to special-needs students.”[6]

Re-opening schools safely

Opening schools safely is critical. Some schools in other countries have opened and then been forced to re-close. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Gretchen Vogel, Meagan Weiland, examine how school systems around the globe have coped with school re-opening and found “some encouraging patterns emerged.”[7] They report, “[Those patterns] suggest a combination of keeping student groups small and requiring masks and some social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe, and that younger children rarely spread the virus to one another or bring it home.” Here’s the problem; according to Dana Goldstein (@DanaGoldstein) and Eliza Shapiro (@elizashapiro), “All but two of the nation’s 10 largest districts exceed a key public health threshold.”[8] They explain, “A standard generally agreed upon among epidemiologists: To control community spread of the coronavirus, the average daily infection rate among those who are tested should not exceed 5 percent. But of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, only New York City and Chicago appear to have achieved that public health goal, according to a New York Times analysis of city and county-level data.” The bottom line is we need to be smart about how we re-open schools.

Being SMART about re-opening schools is exactly what Joseph G. Allen (@j_g_allen), an assistant professor, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Richard Corsi (@DeanMCECSPSU), dean at Portland State University’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, insist needs to happen.[9] They write, “The public health science is quite simple: The amount of virus that kids and adults are exposed to is a function of how many viral particles are emitted into the air and how many are removed. Both sides of that equation can be controlled. To do it, we need to be school SMART.” In this case, SMART is an acronym for the following actions:

S: Stay home when sick
M: Mask up
A: Air cleaner in every classroom
R: Refresh indoor air
T: Temporary classrooms

Concerning the latter point, they write, “It’s time get creative and re-imagine classrooms. We don’t need to think about ventilation rates if we hold classrooms outdoors. Yes, there will be inclement weather — kids and teachers will have to wear hats and gloves when it gets cold, and papers will occasionally get blown around. But this is still far superior to learning via Zoom.”

The case for re-opening schools for younger children is much stronger than it is for re-opening middle and high schools. Apoorva Mandavilli reports, “An influential committee of scientists and educators [has] recommended that, wherever possible, younger children and those with special needs should attend school in person. Their report — issued by the prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which advises the nation on issues related to science — is less prescriptive for middle and high schools, but offered a framework for school districts to decide whether and how to open, with help from public health experts, families and teachers. The committee emphasized common-sense precautions, such as hand-washing, physical distancing and minimizing group activities, including lunch and recess.”[10]

Protecting adults in education

Oster points out, “Schools do not contain only children. Adults work there, and they are more susceptible.” Couzin-Frankel, Vogel, and Weiland add, “Opening safely, experts agree, isn’t just about the adjustments a school makes. It’s also about how much virus is circulating in the community, which affects the likelihood that students and staff will bring COVID-19 into their classrooms.” We must be just as concerned for the health of teachers and administrators as we are for the health of our children. “According to an American Enterprise Institute report,” writes Katie Navarra, “educators in the coronavirus vulnerable age range of 65 years or older include over 18% of public and private school teachers and 27% of all principals. For private schools specifically, 25% of teachers and 44% of principals are a vulnerable age.”[11]

The WSJ editorial staff argues, “Teachers who are older or have underlying health conditions deserve special accommodations. But employers and employees in most industries are making adjustments to manage through the pandemic, and there’s no reason schools and teachers can’t too.” Most teachers are apparently eager to return to the classroom if safe conditions exist. Navarra reports, “An American Federation of Teachers (AFT) poll conducted in June showed 76% of nearly 1,200 K-12 educators, paraprofessionals and higher education faculty and staff surveyed feel comfortable going back to school if certain safety procedures are met. … Superintendents and principals have a lot to consider. High-risk teachers and staff or those caring for vulnerable loved ones are part of an ever-growing list of concerns. Providing access to personal protection equipment (PPE) is a priority for many administrators.”

Concluding thoughts

The WSJ editorial staff concludes, “Millions of parents can’t return to work if their children can’t attend school. Opening the schools is essential to the well-being of students, and teachers and administrators have a duty to make it happen.” I empathize with parents who must struggle with decisions affecting their children’s health, well-being, and education. I also sympathize with teachers who must risk their own health and the health of their families by returning to the classroom. At the very least, I’m convinced we must get students back to learning, by whatever means parents deem best-suited for their circumstances. Several years ago, a few colleagues and I founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — a project-based, problem-solving approach to STEM education helping schools near where we live demonstrate to students that STEM subjects can be fun and applicable in their lives. We believe learning how to solve everyday problems will help students in every aspect of their lives by teaching them to think critically about how they can overcome challenges. Although such projects may have to be put on hold for a little while, I’m convinced education remains the key to a better future and STEM education is critical to keep America competitive.

Footnotes
[1] Shawn Hubler and Dana Goldstein, “Los Angeles and San Diego Schools to Go Online-Only in the Fall,” The New York Times, 13 July 2020.
[2] Bloomberg, “U.S. education chief Betsy DeVos downplays risk of opening schools amid coronavirus,” Los Angeles Times,  12 July 2020.
[3] Staff, “COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry,” The American Academy of Pediatrics, 25 June 2020.
[4] Staff, “Lockdowns could have long-term effects on children’s health,” The Economist, 19 July 2020.
[5] Emily Oster, “Opening schools might be safer than you think,” The Washington Post, 11 May 2020.
[6] Editorial Board, “The Case for Reopening Schools,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 July 2020.
[7] Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Gretchen Vogel, and Meagan Weiland, “School openings across globe suggest ways to keep coronavirus at bay, despite outbreaks,” Science, 7 July 2020.
[8] Dana Goldstein and Eliza Shapiro, “Most Big School Districts Aren’t Ready to Reopen. Here’s Why.” The New York Times, 14 July 2020.
[9] Joseph G. Allen and Richard Corsi, “We can — and must — reopen schools. Here’s how.” The Washington Post, 27 July 2020.
[10] Apoorva Mandavilli, “Citing Educational Risks, Scientific Panel Urges That Schools Reopen,” The New York Times, 15 July 2020.
[11] Katie Navarra, “More robust coronavirus guidelines needed to protect high-risk educators,” Education Dive, 16 July 2020.