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Governments, parents, and even children are itching for schools to reopen, but COVID-19 may keep them closed. Recent events have led districts to second-guess a fresh start this fall: The pandemic’s expected death toll continues to rise as states move to reopen against the advice of scientists; Coronavirus task force advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned against assuming that vaccines and widespread treatments will be available by fall, calling the expectation “a bridge too far”; and in recent weeks, the popular belief that children are “safe” from the virus has been turned on its head by emerging reports of a new pediatric inflammatory syndrome.

On May 12th the entire California State University system announced that it will hold the upcoming semester online, and universities around the country are expected to follow suit. As difficult as this situation is for college students, it may be impossible for schoolchildren. Even for those with consistent Internet access, the lack of structure and high stress levels will prevent kids from meeting standard academic milestones. In fact, many analysts are expecting them to lose ground in an intensified version of the “summer slide.”

Meanwhile, President Trump has been pushing for schools to reopen as soon as possible. He rejected Dr. Fauci’s suggestion to remain cautious in the fall, calling it “not an acceptable answer.” Trump added, “We have to open our schools. Young people are little affected by this.”

Analysis

Despite President Trump’s optimism, the risks of a rushed reopening cannot be understated. Setting aside his apparent ignorance of pediatric inflammatory syndrome, children are not the only ones affected by potential outbreaks in schools; staff and students’ families will also be caught in the crossfire.

There is hope that, like the retail sector, schools can reopen earlier if they do so gradually. The United States could follow the example of Denmark, which reopened schools for the lower grades on April 15th. In addition to increased hygiene measures, children are required to stay six feet apart, and classroom sizes are limited to ten. However, questions remain about the viability of doing this in larger schools. Denmark chose to open primary schools first for good reason: they tend to be smaller, and they’re more likely to be within walking distance. In densely-packed high schools, creating a safe plan would present a significant challenge. The cited NPR article suggests staggering schedules to reduce class sizes, meaning kids could attend on alternating days or in daily shifts.

As with every aspect of public life, coronavirus presents an impossible choice for schools and families. Proposed safety measures can only do so much to mitigate the risk, especially since children have more difficulty understanding and adhering to social distancing policies. However, at some point the suffering caused by missed milestones and social isolation rivals that of the virus itself. The spectre of disease is coupled with that of a mass-scale academic and developmental backslide.

While the fall quarter is up in the air, districts should do more to address the drawbacks of distance learning. Some schools are not offering online instruction due to lack of preparedness and equity concerns. This summer is the time to train teachers and administrators, as well as develop an effective online curriculum — preferably at the state level. Some districts have offered wifi and laptops to low-income students, but the current patchwork of resources is hurting children nationwide. Federal and state support for such programs would go a long way towards making phased reopenings possible. A staggered schedule will be much more viable if kids can learn effectively from home.

Perhaps we’ll get lucky and the situation will improve drastically by August, but we need to prepare for the worst now. Having effective digital options will reduce the rush to return to the classroom before it’s safe.

Resistance Resources

  • Khan Academy
  • Scholastic’s Summer Read-A-Palooza program offers free e-books. This year, they’ve also launched Home Base, where kids can create an avatar, track their reading progress, and more.
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