Let's Do Everything Possible to Keep Schools Open
After almost two years of this, we should be able to.
In mid-November, the government of Ontario announced a plan to send each student home with five rapid COVID tests to use over their winter break.
In retrospect, the Canadians’ move seems prescient. As we head into the winter holiday here stateside, rumors of virtual schooling abound, fueled by hasty efforts to catalog students’ laptops and foreboding directives for all staff to bring computers home over the break.
This is a complex issue, and we need to account for many factors, including the health and safety of all students and staff. And I still want us to do everything possible to keep schools physically open for students.
Why am I so reluctant to go virtual? Virtual learning was not effective for most of the students I serve. Students with us throughout the 18 months of virtual instruction made less progress than we had hoped. And we have done little over the last few months to prepare teachers, students, and families to make it more effective.
Some students really fear the return to virtual. At dismissal last week, as the threat of violence prompted a “we’re going virtual rumor,” two middle school students asked me if it were true. I told them we’d be open, and one remarked, “Good. I hated virtual. I had all F’s last year.”
And closing physical school buildings places an unnecessary burden on parents, particularly those who do not have the flexibility of extensive PTO, the financial resources to take time off, or the option to work from home. In other words, poorer families bear a disproportionate burden.
So how can we avoid an unnecessary and abrupt shift to virtual learning?
We can start by prioritizing schools. As Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown’s School of Public Health recently said, “If I hear of a single school district that goes remote but keeps bars open what that say to me is: They don’t care about kids — and they don’t care about COVID. Because bars spread COVID. Schools generally don’t.”
Then we can direct rapid tests to school districts, especially those in communities with high spread or public pressure to go virtual. Mailing 500 million to households that request them isn’t as efficient as directing them to schools and using a test-to-return policy.
Then we can establish clear thresholds for what would trigger a return to virtual learning. There is likely a level of community spread that would make it dangerous to bring students and adults back — public health experts should come together and agree on this. And there are also levels of staff absences that make it unsafe to physically open schools. Airlines are canceling flights for similar reasons. A shift to virtual instruction cannot be arbitrary, otherwise we risk eroding trust in an institution that already struggles with trust issues.
I also want to see us revise our quarantine policy for close contact students. The CDC recently revised guidelines to allow students to test to return. This is smarter policy than indiscriminately keep students out of the building for 7-10 days
In the future, I think we should strongly consider a new approach to winter break. Tacking on a week of virtual instruction before and after the holidays might give teachers and students more rest and energy to charge into the new year. Districts could also use the time to reinvigorate initiatives and develop staff. But we need time and development to make virtual learning more effective.
Right now we’re not there. We have no coherent approach to virtual instruction — individual schools create their own schedules and platforms. We still have students who don’t have laptops. We haven’t adequately trained parents on how to support students with virtual learning. And we have not confirmed that all students have internet access at home. None of that is fair to students.
Thanks for reading. Whether you’re celebrating or not, I hope you enjoy some rest in the coming week. I’ll see you in the new year.