Foss: To fully reopen schools, we must beat COVID-19

My son is only two, so I don’t have to worry about what we’ll do in the fall if schools don’t fully reopen.

This is a relief, but it hasn’t stopped me from asking some hard questions. 

Could I homeschool? Could I quit my job and become a stay-at-home parent? Could I hire a tutor to come to the house and teach my son? Public schools are sure to be open by the time my son is ready to go. But what if they aren’t? What will we do? 

For many parents, these aren’t theoretical questions. 

They’re questions that need to be answered right now, as school systems throughout the country announce that school will be online, or some combination of online and in-class teaching. 

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Last week, New York released its guidelines for reopening schools, and most districts are expected to implement a hybrid model of education. The first big district in the Capital Region to announce its plan for the fall, Shenendehowa Central School District, has said it will bring K-6 students back for daily, in-person instruction and have students in grades 7-12 alternate between in-person and remote learning.

Shenendehowa’s plan is at once better than I might have expected – education experts say in-person education is especially important for young children – and still not quite good enough.

That’s not the fault of the school district, which is dealing with an impossible situation: how to educate children in a time of disease, illness and death.  

The uncertainty hovering over America’s schools is the direct result of failing to control and suppress COVID-19, as other countries have successfully done. 

To say it’s bad timing to have COVID-19 spiking in the South, Sunbelt and California just as children are supposed to be heading back to the classroom is an understatement. 

Getting kids back in the classroom requires that transmission of the disease remains at low levels. Under the state’s plan, reopening is permissible if the infection rate in a community is 5 percent or lower. Right now, the Capital Region is within that range. But that doesn’t mean most districts can reopen full-time. 

Social distancing requirements are a huge challenge for many districts, which lack the space and staff to reduce class sizes and spread out. 

The single biggest hurdle to reopening, though, might be fear. 

What I’m hearing from parents of school-age children is that school has become an emotional and polarizing topic with “parents on all sides shaming each other and school administrators,” as one of my friends put it.  

The research shows that children are less likely than adults to develop serious cases of the virus, or to pass it on others. This is good news. But it’s not enough to persuade many parents and teachers that returning to full-time, in-person education during a pandemic is desirable. 

According to one recent poll, 71% of parents say sending their kids back to school is either a large or moderate risk to their own health. Similarly, 51% of parents say that they are either very or extremely worried about sending their children back to school in the coming months, while 23 percent said that they are somewhat concerned. 

If we want to reopen schools full-time, we need to address these fears. 

And I mean really address them. 

Not just point to the scientific research on kids and COVID-19 and dismiss those fears as overblown. 

I’ve seen a lot of interviews with epidemiologists and public health experts who say schools should re-open, and I don’t disagree. But if parents and teachers aren’t convinced, it doesn’t matter how strong the case for reopening schools is, because it’s not going to happen. 

The only way to convince fearful parents and teachers that full-time school is a good idea is by defeating the virus. 

That’s it. 

There are no shortcuts, no miracle cures: If we want America’s public school system to function again, we need to beat COVID-19.

Only when the virus is no longer a threat will we be able to teach our children the way we want them to be taught. 

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

— to dailygazette.com

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