Empty desks in a classroom at the Avenues Early Learning Centre in New York, US, on July 2 2020. Picture: AMIR HAMJA
Empty desks in a classroom at the Avenues Early Learning Centre in New York, US, on July 2 2020. Picture: AMIR HAMJA

Online schooling has failed. American schools need to reopen in the [northern hemisphere] autumn.

It has now become obvious that the steady diet of online instruction put in place for the coronavirus pandemic has not only hurt children academically and increased absenteeism, but has contributed to anxiety and depression — and probably even aggravated health problems such as obesity.

“All policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a June report.

A few states are starting to tackle the challenge of balancing the proven damage inflicted by inadequate internet technology and the deeper shortcomings of digital learning against the uncertain risks of Covid-19 infection. California, New Jersey, Alabama and Louisiana are among several states that have published detailed guidelines for enabling at least some in-person instruction. Other states, notably New York, have lagged behind.

Although New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a back-to-school plan before the July 4 weekend, it was short on details and clouded by political feuding. Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a long-running game of one-upmanship, disputed the mayor’s authority to act, but didn’t offer his own plan.

It’s past time to put aside politics. States that are not yet prepared should borrow from other states. California and New Jersey’s detailed blueprints, for example, recognise that each district must develop its own plan based on local needs and healthcare realities.

They avoid mandates, instead providing suggestions for everything from staggered class schedule options to enable social-distancing, to strategies for loading school buses safely (back to front during pickup and first in, last off for drop-off via California’s recommendations) to the equipment and hygiene protocols to deter viral infections.

By breaking classes into smaller cohorts, schools can create rotations for meeting, say, two days a week in person and two days working on projects at home

There are no perfect solutions. Opening schools will entail some risks — though childcare centres that stayed open in New York City when it was the nation’s pandemic epicentre, and school reopenings in Europe more recently, suggest that these can be kept very low, in part because children appear to be less likely than adults to contract and spread the coronavirus.

The priority should be to return small children, pre-K through third grade, to in-person instruction. “Learning is social in young children; to deprive them of that is to deprive them of learning,” said Carol Burris, president of the Network for Public Education and a former award-winning New York principal.

Older students will also need to meet in person, but by breaking classes into smaller cohorts, schools can create rotations for meeting, say, two days a week in person and two days working on projects at home. A mixed schedule of in-school and out-of-school work would allow schools to experiment with hands-on projects that are now common among both public and private progressive schools.

Instruction in science, social studies and the arts could involve students safely, and productively, researching local waterways, architecture and bird species on days when they are not in school.

The California guidelines also recommend a “systematic cycle of assessments” of student progress, but make no mention of standardised tests. Most states won exemptions from federal testing requirements early last. Several states are gearing up to request waivers for the 2020/2021 school year; these should be granted.

Well-laid plans will require collaboration among district leaders, communities and educators; distance-learning options for high-risk students and staff; and the flexibility to adapt if infection rates spike.

Unfortunately, a lack of leadership in some states could hamper the ability of schools to reopen safely. In New York, in particular, battles among Cuomo, de Blasio and the New York State Board of Regents, which is appointed by the legislature, have led to dithering. Recent history hangs heavily over the decision-making; a delay in closing schools at the peak of the pandemic probably contributed to illness and death.

In May, Cuomo wiped out the benefits of $716.9m in federal stimulus aid, hitting poor school districts hardest. Soon thereafter, he announced a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “re-imagine” schools, but excluded current New York City educators and parents from a planning committee. The Regents are operating their own reopening task-force.

Nationwide, reopening schools safely will cost money, requiring the purchase of protective equipment and increases in the number of school nurses. Today, a quarter of all schools have no nursing staff at all to conduct safety protocols and health screenings.

To pay for these costs, the federal government will have to provide extra funding to states that have seen their tax revenues battered. With the total number of students in school buildings at any one time likely to be down sharply in the [northern hemisphere] autumn, New York City, for example, could save a chunk of the $1.1bn spent annually on school busing, according to Leonie Haimson, a public-school advocate and budget watchdog.

And school security could be reduced.

Suspending standardised tests could also save money. One of the few studies on the subject estimated that the US spent $1.7bn on such tests in 2012 — though that estimate included neither the cost of numerous local testing mandates nor the bureaucracies that administer them, according to FairTest.

Reopening schools safely is a moral imperative. Teachers are as essential as nurses and grocery delivery workers who have been on the pandemic front-lines. School districts need to collaborate with educators to develop local protocols that will reassure both worried parents and teachers. And teacher’s union leaders — some of whom have balked at returning to school during the pandemic — need to be part of the solution.


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