New York City, NY

COVID is Spiking Again. So Why Are Schools Still Open?

Laura Head

Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

I’m a both-sides-of-the-coin kind of gal.

As an educator who is not currently in the public school classroom, I’ve had the privilege of looking at the should-they-or-shouldn’t-they-open-schools debate from the outside in. With less stake than I would have had three years ago, it’s been easy for me to see validity to both sides of the controversy.

Largely, I’m passionate about the integrity of the teaching corps and have strong opinions on the role and treatment of teachers. So it’s been easy for me to insist that schools need to close.

Teaching is about instilling our students with strong character, curiosity, conviction, a breadth of insights. The roles that teachers have been filling in the last months have let them do anything but - Instead, they’ve been babysitters, frontline workers, school nurses. Considering that this is what their roles have been reduced to - and the in-school learning experience therefore can’t trump an online version anyway - we might as well cut our losses, let the teachers teach from home, and keep everybody safe while we do so.

I’ve pledged so much allegiance to the way that teachers deserve to be treated that it’s taken me a while to see the whole picture and to finally concede (spoiler alert) that oh, I do think that schools should be left open.

In case you, like me, have struggled to comprehensively understand both sides of the argument, here is your playbook.

The Case To Keep Schools Open

Facilitating Economic Growth

If people want to bring home their groceries and avoid eviction during COVID-19, the only choice they’ve been left with is to go to work. There is not ample government assistance otherwise.

One stimulus check of $1200 has been handed out in the last 9 months. That’s $133 a month, or $33 a week that the Trump administration has provided to every American to get through the pandemic (By the time this has been posted and read, consider that it’s probably even less!). More than 25 million Americans are unemployed, and more than 26 million are facing food insecurity on a regular basis, and just about 40 million Americans are living with the constant threat of eviction.

If the government’s not helping, we’ve gotta go to work.

Note that there are over 152 million people making up the frontline work force. That’s 152 million people who will not get a paycheck if they don’t leave their house and make their shift. Almost 36% of these frontline workers have kids in the household, making for approximately 55 million parents whose economic buoyancy depends on their physical appearance in the work place. For those working in grocery stores, public transit, postal services, building cleaning services, healthcare, and social services, there is no work-from-home option.

55 million parents need a place to send their kids during the day, so that they have means to support them when they get home.

Mitigating a Widening Opportunity Gap

Keep in mind that percentages of frontline workers are disproportionately women, non-white, and below the poverty line. 64% of frontline workers are women, 41% are non-white (compare this to the 24.7% of Americans that are non-white), and about a quarter of frontline workers are in poverty (compared to 10.5% of Americans being in poverty).

When schools aren’t open, whose kids can’t learn? That’s right, the very same people who have been canonically marginalized since the beginning of time.

Keeping schools open means giving historically disadvantaged populations at least a shot at reaching equal opportunity and achievement. Putting schools online only furthers the gaps across economic and racial divides.

COVID Isn’t Really Spreading Through Schools

Most evidence shows that kids aren’t really spreading the virus - a relationship between in-person and schooling and the spread of COVID is hard to identify.

Europe, who’s struggling with their second wave like us, have continued to keep their schools open. Outbreaks are few, and when they do occur, it seems that the small outbreaks follow, instead of lead, COVID spikes.

Even Dr. Fauci says that schools are safe to keep open, citing that the spread rate is low among kids - especially compared to adults.

If we can keep kids in school to avoid a widening opportunity gap and continue to play a responsible role in the spread of COVID, then why not?

The Case for Closing Schools

Kids Are Actually Learning Online

A lot of students have shifted over to remote learning, but a recent study shows that students are actually learning (!). As an educator with strong pedagogical values that prioritize the in-person je-ne-sais-quoi of teaching and learning, I’m surprised - And frankly, kind of annoyed.

But the NWEA finds that math and reading gains are being made in strides comparative to those of past years, when kids were making a physical appearance in school.

So is online school retarding learning? Maybe not.

I present this defense for online school with a major caveat - A lot of kids are missing from the study. Perhaps predictably, marginalized communities are not accounted for in the trends. These kids didn’t log on to take the test, for reasons cited above.

Teachers Are Not Frontline Workers

Teachers didn’t sign up to be frontline workers. When you put a bunch of kids in a classroom on a rotating or hybrid schedule in a middle of a pandemic, change the rules on masks and gloves and social distancing every few days, and are subject to the Chancellor’s capricious decision-making tendencies (looking at you, NYC), there’s not a whole lot of time left for learning.

I’ve heard this time and again from teacher friends. Priorities are no longer to build rigorous units of study, differentiate lesson for diverse learners, revise content for cultural inclusion, and prepare for standardized test (okay, that last one isn’t so much a loss). Priorities are maintaining physical distance, sanitizing school materials, and prepping for half in-person and half-virtual elementary audiences.

I’m thrilled to hear about teachers that have found their new rhythm - but the new rhythms don’t seem to include teaching.

Teachers signed on to teach. Teachers did not sign on to mitigate the disastrous social and economic effects of a global pandemic. Especially not without PPE.

Teachers didn’t sign up to teach online either. But in the case for closing schools, at least in the reality of remote learning, teachers get to reclaim their educational space without the worries of masks, sanitizers, and social distance.

The Upshot

The short of it is that yes, schools should probably be left open. In a day when socialist values are not shared by the partisan leadership, when disadvantaged populations continue to be handed hardships that prevent their economic stability, keeping schools open is a small but palpable effort that can keep the gaps from widening ever further.

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Passionate educator writing insights on learning, sharing travel thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.

New York City, NY

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