Opinion: Open our schools right or not at all


Any other year, in the twilight of summer vacation, television commercials make the switch from promoting amusement parks and popsicles to touting protractors and pencil boxes. The start of the 2020-21 school year is just around the corner — about a month away for some local districts — and, despite how abnormal this year has been, the mess surrounding schools opening for fall classes feels painfully familiar.

We are as prepared for the coming academic year as we were for reopening the economy. Which is to say: We aren’t ready at all.

To be clear, the alternative — students remaining at home for the coming school year — is untenable. That’s partly due to the fact that many districts simply aren’t capable of sustaining full-time remote learning. Not to mention the working parents who would be responsible for performing their full-time jobs while also ensuring their children are paying attention to (and actually benefiting from) the day’s lessons. And that’s if working at home is an option. Many essential workers will have to make the impossible decision of cutting back hours or quitting so that their child won’t fall further behind. That decision is likely to place those already most at risk financially on the brink.

So what do we do?

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote last week, “When Roy Romer took over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District after three terms as governor of Colorado in the 1990s, he faced a daunting challenge. The district was 150,000 desks short, forcing kids to use classrooms in shifts on chaotic year-round schedules. It didn’t work well, he says, especially for kids who were already behind and struggling with difficulties at home. He decided there was no alternative but to try to get the facilities students needed. …

“It cost a lot of money, but it worked. …

“Now Romer and his son, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer, are calling for another ambitious (but hopefully faster) plan to get kids back into normal classrooms: large-scale testing. If you can test students, teachers, and staff frequently, isolate the positive cases, and retest their close contacts, it is possible to control the spread of the virus without heavy-handed closures. Things like masks and an effort to shift as much activity as possible outside would serve to further enhance the impact.”

Many regional superintendents have made clear they’d like to reopen classes to in-person learning while abiding by safety guidelines. Those include the possibility for frequent hand sanitizing and facility cleaning, lunch at desks, possible facial coverings and temperature checks, limiting classes to 25 students, and maintaining social distancing of 6 feet.

Maintaining safe conditions would be a challenge for your average high school teacher — so good luck to the already stressed educators who must now act as epidemiologists to two dozen 6-year-olds.

So what’s missing?

Plans don’t include frequent testing to catch outbreaks before they become crises.

Yglesias continues, “A shift to a testing-based strategy rather than a distancing-based one would require both money and regulatory changes. Right now, everything from federal fiscal policy to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance is conspiring against a safe reopening, raising the prospect of a lost year (or potentially even more) of American education with massive long-term damage that will exacerbate every class, racial, and gender gap in the country.”

And regarding funding, instead of threatening to yank it from schools that can’t yet safely reopen, the federal government should boost funding to schools — and for testing in schools — to make sure they’re able to open safely. Don’t play carrot-and-stick with the lives of kids and teachers.

There are no good options here. That’s almost entirely due to a lack of a cohesive strategy from the federal government — including vital input from educators. The country is in a hurry to reopen schools for fear of the alternative — and schools can’t stay closed forever. But planning to move ahead as though we live in normal times and scrambling to deal with the fallout later is no strategy.
Especially when our children’s health and future are on the line.

Editorial board: Regan Foster, Bryan Grossman, Mary Jo Meade, Helen Robinson, Amy Gillentine Sweet