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With the school year kicking off soon, many are still wondering what education will even look like. Most school districts have left parents in the dark regarding much of the details surrounding either virtual or in-person learning, and school boards around the nation haven’t even put the basics of schooling to a vote.
It is often cited by districts that a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide signals a need to backtrack and slump back into an online learning environment that bars any physical interaction. They often fear that there are too many preparations and precautions they would have to take in reopening as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released guidelines, and parents are expecting a high level of safety measures to be put into place. Even once students are able to return to in-person learning, localities fear that isolated outbreaks among students and families may jeopardize the entire notion of in-person education for the rest of the year.
School districts do have reason to be careful in setting up their school systems for the upcoming school year, but not as much due to the reasons listed, as to their lack of planning and accommodating they have attempted in returning their students to an in person school environment.
The CDC has already released extensive guidelines and recommendations for schools to return to in-person learning in the fall that would ensure for both the safety of the students and staff as well as the proper educational continuity that all students need in order to receive the renowned American education they deserve.
The CDC has called for social distancing measures to be put into place wherever possible that will ensure a minimal risk for infection. Masks will also be worn wherever practical as with all other public spaces. They also call for testing to take place among students and staff at multiple points during the school year, with tests occurring more frequently in localities with a higher prevalence of the virus.
Additionally, the CDC provides guidelines on dealing with outbreaks within the school to ensure students’ safety. The practice of cohorting students that is recommended (having students remain with the same group of their peers and teachers while in school) would ensure that any outbreaks that occur could be contained within a small group of students. Through step tracing techniques, districts would be able to follow the spread of any outbreaks and ensure that all exposed students and staff are quarantined. If an outbreak does occur, schools would be equipped with the tools to shut down for a short period of time, continuing online, and ensure that it is safe to return and continue in-person learning.
With all of these measures in place and CDC health officials giving the green light to begin in-person schooling, it begs the question: Why are school districts refusing to return to physical schooling? Study after study has shown that in-person schooling is much more effective in educating students and keeps them more engaged in their learning. The yearly influenza outbreaks that occur in the fall are much more lethal and much more transmissible than the Coronavirus which makes it much harder to reason closures during this time.
School districts have already decided to go back to school virtually without allowing more time to prepare localities for in-person schooling with 11 out of the 15 largest school systems in the nation opting to do so. This may come to hurt students even before they go back in the fall.
The Chicago Public School system has consistently delayed the school board vote on how students would return to school in the fall. This is likely due to the intense pressure the Chicago Teachers Union has been placing on the district and the demands for virtual learning they’ve been pushing. They claim that the school system is not prepared and does not have any guidelines to make a return to in-person schooling safe despite the very clear guidance that has been laid out by the CDC.
The Los Angeles and San Diego public school systems have also opted to remain virtual in the fall despite plans for in-person learning beginning all the way back in May. Once again the teachers unions have played a large part in strong arming the districts into doing what’s best for the teachers rather than the children. The unions already exerted a massive amount of influence in the spring, delaying the education of students for their own expediency.
The main fears for teachers is that contact between teachers and students, as well as contact between students and parents, would lead to vulnerable populations contracting the virus. With CDC guidelines being put into place however these risks would be heavily minimized and the improved quality of learning would be worth much more.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has also placed heavy pressure on these school districts to not reopen as he continues to roll back reopening measures within his state. He thinks that very regular testing must take place among all 600,000 students and staff in the districts which would cost roughly $300 per person by the end of the school year. One thing that everyone can agree upon is that this is highly expensive for school systems that already have to increase their budgets to accommodate for the virus, but it is simply used here to discourage any forms of in-person learning.
These districts would be especially hurt as they contain a high number of students below the poverty line as well as non-English speaking. The Los Angeles Public Schools superintendent Austin Beutner has publicly stated that in-person schooling is essential to the success of these student groups as it can act as a pathway out of poverty as well as a means to socialize for those who can’t speak English.
Just outside of the nation’s capital, Fairfax County Public Schools has been among one the more recent school districts to decide on a virtual learning environment for the beginning of the school year this fall. This was after extensive planning by the school board and a plan that allowed parents to choose whether their child would attend school in-person two days a week or learn entirely virtually.
Seemingly out of the blue, the FCPS superintendent Scott Braband announced that school would start entirely virtually this fall due to a possible spike in Coronavirus cases. This came before the school board could even vote on the matter and before anyone else in the district could have a voice on the issue.
Once again this choice can most likely be attributed to the pressure the Fairfax Federation of Teachers placed on the district to not return to in-person schooling in the fall. They held many protests outside the school board meeting center and attempted to interrupt the education planning for next year. This is despite many teachers in the county supporting a return to physical schooling in order to better educate the student population.
Despite these school districts moving preemptively to virtual learning, many other states and localities have kept trying to provide the best education possible for their students.
The state of Colorado has urged states to continue formulating in-person learning plans regardless of their ability to open up in the fall. They want to ensure that even if in-person learning cannot occur on the first day of school, they can immediately transition to the physical classroom when the time is right.
Colorado has also urged every locality to begin in-person learning in the fall regardless of what neighboring districts may be doing. This also includes opening up either high schools or elementary schools depending on which may be safer for the time being to ensure that all levels of education are not punished with virtual learning.
The state has also created their own guidelines based on the CDC recommendations to ensure that the needs of each district are met.
Many parents have also been fed up with the early decisions made by school districts with Springfield County parents holding a protest after a school board vote that implemented full time virtual learning for the first quarter of the school year. A mix of parents and students came to voice their concerns citing that without in-person learning, students would both receive a sub-par education as well as have little to no structure to their day to day lives.
A survey of the district found that 93% of parents wanted their children to return to in-person learning five days a week. Despite these findings, the district stated that they took many opinions into consideration when crafting the plan for next year citing a panel of 70 teachers, parents, and elected officials. How can they say they made a plan tailored to the needs of parents and students when the majority of parents disagree with the vote?
The opposition to an in-person option often comes from the teachers unions who wish to use this time of crisis as a means to grab power and influence for themselves. If they really wanted what was best for the students of America, they would allow the voice of parents and students to be heard rather than drowning them out to best serve their own interests.
At the very least, they would advocate for school choice, giving parents the dollars allocated for public education to instead spend on an education of their choice, outside of public schools. However, their vehement opposition to this -- and even efforts to mandate the closure of private schools as in Montgomery County, Maryland -- reveal their true motives, where students’ needs take the back burner to propping up the government’s desired monopoly on grade school education.
So as the nation sends its students back to school in less than a month, it is crucial that it does so with an in-person option or with school choice, to give avenues for real education outside of government schools that remain closed. Parents want it. The CDC urges it. And students need it.