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My Op Ed on Reopening

August 16, 2020

Roughly two weeks ago I posted my thinking on reopening of schools. Over the past two weeks my position on reopening has hardened, especially given the legislature’s inability to reach any kind of agreement on fund public education and the POTUS’ decision to shift a part of the burden of unemployment to the States. Here’s what I submitted to our local newspaper earlier this week: 

In an op ed I wrote at the end of May, I offered some ideas on how schools could reopen in a phased fashion that would provide face-to-face instruction for the youngest children, hybrid instruction for middle school aged children, and a completely flexible set of options for older high school students. Over the past several weeks, however, news stories and conversations and email exchanges with my two daughters have led me to change my mind: schools should offer only remote instruction and open schools only to those children who need a safe haven, children whose parents must work outside the home, and children who have no access to remote learning.

 

Over the past few days I have read countless stories about aborted school re-openings in other parts of the country, stories about sleepover camps and family gatherings that led to increased spread of COVID-19, and new evidence that children get COVID -19 and pass it along. In addition, there are countless stories describing spikes in COVID 19 cases across the country despite the efforts of Governors to impose quarantines and a general effort on the part of the populous to wear masks and maintain social distancing. More troubling are recent reports indicating that those who survive the disease are often left with heart conditions that may be chronic.

 

On a personal level, I’ve compared notes with my daughters who live in the New York City area where, based on news accounts and data collected by epidemiologists, the disease is “under control.” They are both struggling with the decision of whether to send their children to school, a decision their respective school districts are allowing them to make. My older grandson in high school in New York City will continue remote learning. He adapted to it and by staying home he can avoid an hour commute on public transportation. But my younger grandson who will begin 3rd grade did not find remote instruction effective when he lived in Brooklyn. Since moving to Montclair NJ, he may go to school part-time— that is if the schools in that community still have that option available. The Montclair schools, like many schools in our region, will be offering a hybrid program contingent on the COVID 19 outbreak remaining “under control”. Both of my daughters wish their respective school districts and States made a firm decision instead of leaving it to parents to decide. They are troubled by the fact that their sons might lose ground if they stay home but concerned about their son’s exposure to the disease if they send them to school.

 

After hearing my daughter’s concerns and reading accounts of the impact of failed re-openings, it seems foolish to contemplate any kind of in-person reopening. The trendiness for the disease are moving in the wrong direction nationally and all the medical advice suggests that at least 14 consecutive days of flat or diminishing cases are needed to consider reopening. According to the charts published daily in the Valley News, even New Hampshire and Vermont, two states that seemingly accomplished the flat-line status needed to reopen, are witnessing a modest but clear uptick in cases… and the impact of opening Vermont and New Hampshire to tourists and the pending reopening of colleges are unknown as the school year begins.

 

The President’s Executive Orders over the weekend hardened my perspective on this issue. His plan that States partially foot the bill for unemployment benefits will put an unbearable strain on their budgets. That strain that will inevitably lead to deep cuts in school funding and, consequently, a greater strain on local property taxes. Resources for schools are already scarce and about to be made even more so. It seems foolish to me spend scarce dollars on cleaning schools, sterilizing buses, and purchasing PPE equipment in order to offer partial face-to-face instruction. It seems even more foolish to spend time, the most precious resource teachers and administrators have, on the development of hybrid plans and contingency plans that incorporate remote learning. If remote learning was the default, that time could be spent working to make the remote learning experience more effective.

For 29 years as a School Superintendent in New England, Maryland, and New York I had to decide whether or not to open schools when it was snowing or snow was forecast. Whenever it was a close call, I would ask myself this question: “Why put thousands of children and hundreds of employees at risk in order to avoid an additional day in June?” School districts across New England have a close call to make, and from everything I’ve read anything other than universal remote learning can only make things worse. To paraphrase the snow day question: “Why put thousands of children and hundreds of employees at risk in order to provide some kind of compromised face-to-face learning?”

I believe that the public is beginning to understand that COVID-19 is not the flu and that children CAN get it and DO spread it. If the public grasps those facts and learns from the successes in other countries, we might accept the sacrifice of remote learning for a few months along with the inconvenience of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. When that happens, America WILL bend the curve and, when that happens, schools can begin planning for a phased reopening. Until then, we need to accept remote learning and make it work better.

Wayne Gersen

Etna, NH

 

 

 

 

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