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Foss: Schools must reopen in fall

Foss: Schools must reopen in fall

Foss: Schools must reopen in fall
Mekeel High School student Khayr Barkley, 15, does his school work with his mother, Tayika Barkley, in Schenectady.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber / Staff Photographer

It isn’t sustainable. 

I understand why in-person schooling ended in March, and why schools remained closed through the academic year. I understand that figuring out how to safely reopen schools is a major challenge, and that poor planning might result in coronavirus outbreaks that necessitate closing down schools again.  

I understand all of that. 

But what we’ve been doing just isn’t sustainable. 

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Keeping kids home and teaching them remotely is feasible for the short term. It is not, for the vast majority of American families, a state of affairs that can continue indefinitely without causing serious strain. Most households simply aren’t set up to homeschool for extended periods of time. 

I’ve read a lot of articles and op-eds about reopening schools, and most of them focus on the inconvenience of school closures to families. How, these pieces ask, can the economy return to normal if parents are trying to juggle work and childcare? 

That’s an important question, but it implies that our schools primarily function as providers of childcare, watching and caring for children so that their parents can work. 

What’s missing from most of these conversations is any sense that schools exist to educate children, and provide a safe, stable environment where they can socialize with peers and get exposed to music, art, sports and other enriching activities.  

Prolonged closures will do more than disrupt our economy. 

They’ll rob students of learning, potentially setting schoolchildren back academically for years to come. For younger and lower-income kids, the impact could be devastating, according to educational experts. 

“New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains,” the New York Times said in a recent report. “Racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps will most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.” 

There are huge costs to keeping schools closed next year, which is why I support reopening them. 

I didn’t come to this position easily, and it could change if new information suggests that reopening schools will fuel outbreaks. 

Right now, though, that doesn’t appear to be the case. 

Children have accounted for roughly 5 percent of all COVID-19 cases and 0.06 percent of all deaths, and they do not appear to transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. Based on what I’ve read, parents are more likely to pass the virus on to their kids than get sickened by their children picking up the virus and passing it on to them. 

Also interesting: Last week, the YMCA of the USA announced that it provided childcare for up to 40,000 children between the ages of 1 and 14 during the lockdown, and experienced no coronavirus outbreaks or clusters. 

 

Of course, reopening schools requires that districts proceed with caution, and be prepared to shut down if there’s an outbreak. (France and Israel both saw clusters of outbreaks after reopening their schools.) Students and staff with underlying health conditions that put them at risk of a more serious infection should be permitted to work or learn at home. I’m not sure children need to wear masks, but adults definitely should. 

Details on what reopening will look like are hazy, at best. 

New York hasn’t released a plan, but officials say they expect to operate at reduced capacity -- meaning that schooling will likely be a combination of in-school learning and distance learning at home. 

That’s certainly not ideal, and while some in-school learning is better than none, the combination of in-school and distance learning will leave many kids struggling to get to where they need to be academically. 

Figuring out how to reopen schools isn’t enough. 

We’re also going to need to figure out how to undo the damage caused by prolonged school closures and staggered classroom schedules. 

Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave a congratulatory final regular daily press briefing in which he observed that “we reopened the economy and we saved lives.” 

Unmentioned was the big, unsolved, increasingly urgent problem still facing the state -- how to get kids back in the classroom so they can learn. 

There's been a lot of hand-wringing over how to get restaurants, bars, movie theaters, offices, hair salons and gyms open and operating safely. 

The schools deserve even more attention. 

But they’re not getting it, and it's time for that to change.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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