Our parents may have claimed to walk uphill both ways in the snow to school, but now the newest generation finally has an experience to trump them: Our parents didn’t have to deal with a global pandemic while learning long division.
On Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser declared that the city’s public schools would not open for the first term of the school year. The decision of whether or not to open schools in the local area is a difficult one.
On the one hand, the D.C. metro area has seen an increase in cases. But on the other, D.C. students rely on schools for balanced meals and other necessities. Forty-six percent of D.C.’s public school students are academically at-risk and a majority of students qualify and in some cases depend on the free- and reduced-meals program.
Miss Bowser and D.C.’s education community understand how vital in-person instruction is. Several charter schools and many private schools plan to have in-person instruction in some form. D.C. Public Schools is planning to reopen schools in November, at the beginning of Term 2. The question D.C.’s educational leaders must ask themselves is not if they should reopen, but rather when.
The current science around schools reopening is a jump ball.
Some available evidence suggests that children are at little personal risk from COVID-19 infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data reveal that infection is rare in healthy toddlers and school-age children. In fact, children are much more likely to die from the regular flu or pneumonia than COVID-19. It’s also important to note the isolation associated with virtual instruction is a real threat for children in and of itself. Child abuse may go unnoticed or unreported, and there are those who may go hungry if they normally rely on school feeding programs.
However, teachers, administrators, custodial staff and parents are not children and could suffer severe symptoms if infected, depending on their age and underlying health conditions. Any plan to bring kids back to the classroom needs to provide accommodations for staff who are most at-risk.
Groups — including the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Academies of Sciences — have lined-up in favor of reopening schools. If the decision is made by local communities to follow their recommendations, the CDC has released thorough guidelines for school systems to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The agency calls for mask use, regular disinfecting, proper hand-hygiene and physical distancing.
But what will it look like in practice? Classroom desk arrangements will have to be different, and holding hands in line will need to be off-limits. The lunchroom will definitely need to change. The CDC suggests meals either be brought from home, which is not always possible, or served individually in classrooms. Alternatively, cafeteria lunches (and other activities like recess) may have to be staggered to limit mingling.
Keeping kids hydrated will also be more challenging. The CDC notes that because school water systems have been in disuse, there may be bacterial growth that requires cleaning. One solution is for kids to bring their own personal water containers, but even before the pandemic a report found that many school systems have drinking water contaminated with lead. (Public water systems are also known to have other heavy metals like arsenic.) In fact, the CDC has recommended that kids and teachers stay away from shared drinking fountains and water coolers.
To get through a long day properly hydrated, school-provided individual water bottles may be the easiest and safest fix to avoid risky refills at a shared tap.
Other shared things that cannot easily be substituted, such as computers or cafeteria tables, will have to be cleaned regularly throughout the day. Classes may be staggered or, in some cases, teachers may shift between classes instead of students. School assemblies, meanwhile, can be virtual and shown on computers or streamed to screens in the classrooms.
The decisions we have in front of us are not easy; I don’t envy D.C.’s education leaders who have to make the final call. But we must implement a structure that is uniquely crafted for local conditions, as well as works for adults and students alike. If successful, perhaps in 50 years, our children will recount walking uphill both ways in the snow, while also wearing a mask, to school.
• Joseph Perrone is a former adviser to the World Health Organization and former Vice President for Business Development and Technology Transfer at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.
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