Back-To-School in the United States
Education and Public Health during a Pandemic
As the start of the new school year approaches, students are preparing for an anything-but-normal return. Some states, such as Illinois and Georgia, have left it up to the local districts to decide if they will commence in-person instruction, and have released broad guidelines on how to do so safely. This leaves the difficult task of balancing public health and providing quality education in the hands of community-elected or state-appointed school boards who have not always made safe decisions. More broadly, the US’s failure to take a centralized approach to tackle COVID-19 has left states in varying positions against the virus as the new school year comes around. School boards located in southern states that did not shut down early but had a greater spike during the summer are now facing the task of balancing a public health and education crisis in the span of a few months, that these community electees are not always qualified to handle. All-in-all, even though in-person instruction is ideal for learning, there are still states and districts scheduled to return where COVID-19 is not sufficiently under control to do so safely. Furthermore, teachers’ unions across the nation are protesting against this disregard for their health; many may not even be able to work if they have children doing online school at home, creating staffing problems for those schools that choose to open.
A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that 338,000 kids have tested positive for COVID-19 through July 31st, with nearly a quarter coming in the last weeks of July. The study found that seven out of ten cases were located in the South and the West. It is possible that a lack of efficient lockdowns in these regions contributed to the crisis. For instance, in Georgia, sleep-away camps led to 260 kids being infected, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Consequently, many districts in Georgia had to send home students and staff, including one in Gwinnett County that had to send home 260 people after its first week.
States that did not reach their peak early on nor had the foresight to close down completely are now facing the daunting task of providing quality education during a clearly still raging pandemic. On the other hand, the report found little new cases amongst children in north-eastern states; these regions’ COVID-19 cases peaked in early spring. Remarkably, despite this, those north-eastern states are taking more precautions in going back to school, with many schools in Pennsylvania and New York going online or taking a hybrid approach. Evidently, some state’s nonchalant approach to closing down the economy to deal with the virus has left them unprepared to return to class. Specifically, in Texas, where age distributions for COVID-19 were only reported in 8% of cases, leaving them in the dark as to what age range the people that have the virus are in. Meanwhile, in California, where cases and hospitalizations are soaring, the governor has put 33 out of 58 counties on a watchlist to teach online until conditions improve. Although online learning is difficult, in areas where the pandemic is continuing to spread, in-person instruction is not worth the risk of shutting down halfway through the semester suddenly; doing so would be more chaotic and harmful to families, teachers, and students.
Teachers’ unions across the country are demanding more funds in order to implement the safety measures necessary to reopen safely. In Texas and Florida, teachers are being forced back to in-person instruction and there is a real possibility of a strike if their demands for better public health measures are not met. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and its education commissioner, Richard Concoron, are the target of a lawsuit arguing that the reopening of schools in the face of a pandemic violates the Floridian constitution, which states that all schools must be safe. Zeph Capo, head of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has stated that a teacher’s strike is on the table if conditions are not safe enough. Although some teachers are protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act, Capo says this will not be enough for the entire Texas school system. A teachers’ strike in Texas is a big risk, as teachers are legally prohibited from striking and can be punished by losing their retirement funds or licenses.
Additionally, in states where districts choose whether or not they go back to in-person instruction, teachers who need to tend to their kids at online school or who may have underlying conditions can not show up to teach anyway. When enough teachers take leave it creates staffing shortages, and in some scenarios a proper replacement is hard to find, especially for special education classes. This decreases the quality of education at schools regardless of if they’re online or not; these teachers can more easily create lessons online but not in person.
In states with high case counts, students and their families are safer online than in person. However, there are certain groups, such as young children and special education students, where an online education is insufficient for learning. Young children have short attention spans, and need face-to-face instruction to learn structure within their day. In the same vein, online learning would be a real struggle for some students with learning disabilities. Staggering children back based on need would be beneficial to those students and more logistically plausible; managing a subset of students with safety measures is obviously a lot easier than inviting them all back.
Overall, in states that are still battling high COVID-19 case counts, going back to school for in-person instruction puts the community at risk. Without getting the virus under control first, normal school days can not come back as they will only proliferate cases. Furthermore, sending every child back will lead to teachers striking or teachers responsibly staying home for their family’s safety under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Staggering back the students who need in-person instruction while getting COVID-19 cases down across the counties where it is rampant is a great strategy to help move towards inviting students back later in the fall or even in winter depending on the region. This approach minimizes the risk of proliferating a second wave at schools which would lead to a hectic and sudden shutdown that would severely impede education for a second straight year.
Edited by Asher Laws