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| On 3 months ago

The Real Reasons Why School Should Open Up in the Fall

By Eduardo Monk Jr.

As the nation steadily reawakens from a months-long slumber, schools and universities soon must come to a consensus the decision of re-opening or remaining in lockdown. For students who finished last semester on a computer screen, the prospect of staying home and missing valuable classroom time looms large, yet the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic raises concerns for how education will be conducted in the future, on all levels. Though a mistake, e-learning proved a barely viable substitute for in-person classes but could potentially replace physical schools and universities for the foreseeable future. However, for the sake of students educations, schools cannot remain closed for fall semesters. While schools must adopt protective measures, e-learning cannot be relied on as heavily as schools did this past spring.

High school students and their teacher in Cascais, Portugal, wear masks on their first day back in school on May 18. (Horacio Villalobos / Corbis via Getty Images)

Despite the obvious risks, President Donald Trump has demanded schools to re-open and even has threatened to strong-arm schools by withholding federal funding (though this shouldn’t be how Trump should handle this) if they remain closed, tweeted out “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” And countless others have rallied behind him in the promise of schools re-opening.

Garnering the support of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, he explained “if we can re-open Home Depot, then we can re-open schools,” declaring schools would return in the fall. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages schools to re-open for the health of the children. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said, “(Schools) must fully open, and they must be fully operational and how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.” CDC Director Robert Redfield agreed “having the schools actually closed is a greater public health threat to the children than having the schools reopen.” Though Trump has yet to receive unanimous support for his rush to re-open. Republican state school chiefs, countless pediatricians, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spoken out against Trump’s decision.

However, as we did with specific businesses, we must deem schools and universities as unequivocally essential. After months of confusing flux and countless missed memories, students deserve the reinstatement of normalcy alongside the steady reopening of the rest of society. As do restaurants and sporting events find ways to adapt to such unprecedented times, so can our educational institutions. Though it would be foolish to believe re-opening won’t undoubtedly come with serious challenges, unique to schools and universities.

First and foremost, kids finding the courage to trust their schools and their peers enough to put themselves at, an albeit not a massive, risk. After months of lockdown, media fearmongering, and social isolation, the return to school will be a difficult transition for some and therefore certain measures must be taken. Of course, calling for re-opening does not mean ignoring proper protective guidelines to keep students safe. Re-opening can be done safely if students and faculty agree to abide by such guidelines and the decision

To President Trump’s vocal dismay, the CDC has rightfully provided stringent guidelines if districts choose to re-open, however, contain measures certain schools might struggle to accommodate. Tweeting out, “I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!”, Trump recognizes some of the barriers for re-opening presented by these guidelines.

For younger elementary school kids, social distancing and mask-wearing will be nearly impossible to enforce. By the rowdy and rebellious nature of children, corralling them into proper social distancing will be a herculean task for teachers. In crowded high schools hallways, social distancing will be equally impossible to manage, unless staggered schedules and longer passing periods can be achieved. Not to mention virulent cleanings will be pricey and will demand greater federal funding, contrary to Trump’s threats.

Honestly, studies regarding the risk to children posed by COVID-19 remain inconclusive and largely will be until kids re-enter their school routines again. “Even if they are less capable of getting or transmitting the virus, you are countering that (in schools) with closer proximity and contacts over longer periods of time,” said John Brownstein, a chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “We don’t have evidence of them in school settings … There aren’t a lot of kids who have had a normal day in the past four months.”

Initial studies in China concluded children probably aren’t “drivers” of the virus. We do know the virus seems to be much milder for children and children seem to catch the virus less frequently. A study from the New England Journal of Medicine found “Of the 1391 children assessed and tested from January 28 through February 26, and “during the course of hospitalization, 3 patients required intensive care support” but “all had coexisting conditions”.

Another study published in Nature Medicine, using data from China, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Canada, and South Korea, concluded the risk of catching Covid-19 for children and teens was half that of people older than 20, though this conclusion comes from data in March. But as with all models and studies, we won’t truly understand the risk until the rubber meets the road and schools re-open. Even with other countries that re-open schools, massive disparities in results still puzzle researchers. Denmark re-opened schools in mid-April to little disruption yet cases spiked in students and teachers when Israel re-opened.

But as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, “Reopening schools comes with some risk, but there are risks to keeping kids at home, too. At home, kids aren’t benefiting from social stimulation. They may be falling behind in learning. . . . They may not be getting the nutrition that they get at school. And it may be difficult for parents to get back to work.” Appropriate measures must be taken but we cannot pretend total shutdown doesn’t come with its own set of pitfalls.

We only have two alternatives to schools re-opening. Either school extend summer break for an arbitrary amount of time and further prolong the inevitable return to school or employ e-learning again. And, after a lukewarm 50 million student experiment that occurred in the spring, schools would likely opt towards e-learning rather than hold students back and sacrifice valuable learning time by stretching out summer vacation. Besides, on an administrative level, e-learning, to a certain degree, worked. Students received their work from teachers and could accomplish the assignments at home. But, as a recently graduated high school senior with elementary age siblings, e-learning should be chalked up as a total disaster.

When compared to a physical school, e-learning cannot be handled as a long-term solution, for the sake of the students and the parents alike. Logistically, as jobs re-open and people begin returning to work, schools re-opening might be unavoidable since parents desperately need the childcare, the secondary purpose of school. With schools potentially remaining closed and students stuck at home, working parents will be put in a tricky bind. But more prominently, students’ cannot continue to receive schooling through a computer screen if we take their education seriously.

On a surface level, not all school districts have the luxury of school-provided laptops or tablets to give students a platform to do their schoolwork and, even for districts who could, not all students could access the internet. For hundreds of thousands of students who don’t have internet access and don’t have a home computer, e-learning simply cannot be done. “The pandemic is an educational equity crisis for vulnerable students who were too often underserved by our education system in ‘normal’ times,” explained Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York.

For more privileged schools, the transition went much smoother with their greater access to technology and regular usage of online platforms such as Google Classroom. But low-income schools suffer from low participation as students either don’t have the technological means to do their schoolwork over the internet or deal with numerous distractions that seriously hinder their production. Without the routine structure of in-person school, students struggle to stay focused. Parents of younger children must constantly attend to their children’s schooling or else the children miss the formative years of their education. But homeschooling cannot be expected of working parents. For special needs children, parents simply cannot accomplish the specialized education they need within a home environment.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest school district, as many as 40% of elementary school students had not logged on even once as of the first week of April, three weeks after the system closed. On top of that, as Superintendent Austin Beutner warned, “merely logging in does not tell us anything more than the student turned on their computer,” meaning true participation numbers probably sink even lower. With absenteeism comes with greater risk of dropping out, a particular threat for black and Hispanic students who already disproportionately suffer from higher dropout rates.

Even for students that did participate, many felt e-learning failed in replicating the quality of an in-classroom education and didn’t go beyond anything more than mindless busywork. Emily Weinberg, a senior at Lexington High School, a public school in Massachusetts, described e-learning as “I had to try to figure out what the kinetic energy of a dime was when I pushed it. I felt like this is wasting my time.”

Adding to the feeling of wasting time by e-learning, some school districts adopted a pass/fail system or even a “no harm grading”, where grades could not drop during e-learning periods and only could go up, removing the sole incentive for doing schoolwork for many students in grades. High school seniors, especially, checked out early, as many already received letters of admission into their college of choice and no longer had any purpose for their schoolwork.

Even if students dedicated themselves to e-learning, a preposterously tall order as seen by low participation numbers, the education they would receive over the computer pales in comparison to being in a classroom. A study from the Brookings Institution examining the effectiveness of virtual charter schools, unique schooling that delivers instruction online in replacement of the traditional public schools operating similarly to the novel e-learning, found students attending virtual charter schools underperforming compared to public school students, finding “a loss of roughly 11 percentile points in English/Language Arts and 16 percentile points in math for an average virtual charter student at baseline as compared to their public school peers.” After missing nearly all of the last semester, losing any more of their in-class educations would be disastrous for students and could set back an entire generation.

On a collegiate level, some students have even begun suing universities for charging the same tuition rates despite the decreased quality in education through online courses, encouraged by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Since the arts and lab-based sciences frankly cannot be conducted in a home environment, on top of the overall decline of quality that comes with relying on solely zoom calls and general busywork for education, students believe the obscene tuition rates should be slashed to reflect the resources provided to them. If colleges refuse to lower tuition, many students may instead turn to cheaper alternatives such as community colleges for general education courses or their entire degrees, a devastating financial blow to universities who crucially need housing and dining contracts to keep their doors open.

Besides, paying for top-tier professors who mastered their fields and access to unparalleled resources for research projects and receiving Khan Academy is nearly highway robbery. College campuses house the future of American innovation and deserve only the finest of educations, especially after paying the absurdity of tuition rates.

Remaining closed will also result in sacrificing valuable life lessons for college students, young adults enjoying their first doses of personal responsibility and unbridled independence. Though societal training wheels stave off the full weight of adulthood, college, for many students, will be their first wade into life, no longer entitled to their parent’s care or the forgiveness of the high school apparatus. No teachers to hound them for their schoolwork. No parents to do laundry for them. For the first time in their lives, college students get to design their lives under tangible consequences. Staying home unjustly prolongs adolescence, cheating college students of their preparation to handle the outside world.

Now, the choice between e-learning and physical school should probably be given to students. If parents don’t feel safe sending their kids back, then alternate options deserve to be provided, though under the unspoken agreement that e-learning’s quality cannot match the quality of in-person education. Unless the school can provide trained e-learning teachers who exclusively serve these students who remain at home, the strain put on teachers to manage both a classroom and e-learning curriculum and still teach would be immense and unfair. But to force all students onto the e-learning curriculum all over again would do untold damage to the future of America.

This decision cannot be twisted as sacrificing children but rather a compromise of the reinstatement for normalcy. Re-opening intrinsically comes with risk but we cannot pretend total lockdown solves the pandemic. Like all public policy, we, as a society, must weigh the risks of decisions and determine which risks we would rather accept. If we lowered the national speed limit to twenty miles per hour for all cars, we would virtually erase the 1.35 million annual deaths from car accidents. But we accept the risks posed by higher speed limits because we understand the alternative would likely result in total economic collapse as supply chains screech to a halt and cities would be forced to be self-sufficient without access to outside resources.

And for schools, remaining closed sacrifices critical building blocks for the formative years of elementary school, fails to deliver a genuinely enriching education for high schoolers, and cheats college students from the invaluable life lessons from universities and through the insane tuition. Any further reliance on e-learning, beyond a generally reasonable hybrid system, would be inflicting more harm than good. While the rest of America slowly re-emerges from lockdown, schools must follow suit. Our futures’ education cannot be allowed to be deemed non-essential and safely re-opening schools, under proper guidelines to protect students and teachers, must be the next step of America’s return.

Eduardo Monk Jr.

Political Communications major at Illinois State University. Vince aut morire, my fellow patriots.

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