This is our new weekly pandemic feature: Is It Safe, where we ask you what you’re comfortable with in the age of Covid-19, and what you aren’t. Read our primer to understand the concept. And email me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. This week: School.
There is perhaps no American institution more disrupted by Covid-19 than our school systems. Only 50 percent of American public schools opened for in-person instruction earlier this fall, and while that number has inched up since then, it has done so during the third wave of the coronavirus, the biggest spike yet. With the lack of any federal leadership, states, districts and parents themselves have had to carry the burden, often with a lack of information, direction and (most of all) funding. Everyone is lurching around in the dark.
Meanwhile, our children, whether they’re remote or not, are falling desperately behind: A whole generation of kids will be playing catchup for years to come. And many parents have had to make the decision for themselves: Should I send my children back to school in-person? Or should I keep them remote? It has pitted many parents against each other, particularly now that it has become so politicized. What are the arguments for sending back children aged K-6? What are the arguments against it? Last week, I asked you for your thoughts on the matter. Having read through all of them, these are the best arguments for each side.
- Virtual learning just doesn’t work. One can make an argument for virtual learning in, say, a collegiate environment, where students are often doing much of their classwork online anyway. But asking, say, first graders to “learn” anything over the computer is absurd. Most pediatricians warn against extensive screen time at a young age in the first place, and now we are requiring kids to stare at a screen all day. Their attention fades, they miss out on basic lessons, there’s no way to follow up with them … it’s just a mess, across the board. It’s not teachers’ fault. Elementary school — and, for that matter, teaching for special-needs children — was just not meant to be done on the computer. “I honestly have no idea if my daughter has learned a single thing in the third grade this year,” one respondent said. “I don’t think her teacher does either.”
- Kids need the presence of other children. School is about more than just learning, of course. It’s about socialization, and learning how to interact with other people, often people who are different than you. Many parents believe that the lessons you learn about social structures and navigating complex personal relationships are just as important as the actual lessons that school provides. Taking children out of the classroom and making them sit by themselves isolates them, robbing them of the child-to-child connections every kid needs to make.
- Virtual learning deprives resources from the kids who need them the most. This was best illustrated by a devastating story in The New Yorker about inner-city kids in Baltimore left behind by virtual schooling. In public schools, low-income families, as well as families from historically underrepresented groups, often have basic needs like meals and shelter provided by the schools. This has been ripped away from them. On top of that, wireless access is by no means automatic for low-income families; many respondents mentioned how kids at their remote schools have had to work outside at, say, a Wal-Mart just to have access to wireless so they can complete the fourth grade. “It’s very easy for wealthy white parents to provide child care and a safe hotspot for their kids,” one respondent said. “But not everyone is so fortunate. These kids are just being lost.” Meanwhile, more and more research is making it clear that schools are not, in fact, superspreaders in any conceivable way.
- Teachers are being asked to put their health at risk. There is considerable evidence that Covid-19 spreads more slowly among children, who, if they do get the virus, suffer fewer and less severe effects. But even if you allow for that — and this allowance still accepts that some kids will get sick — it doesn’t protect teachers. Teachers are infected at twice the rate of students. If we put our children in their hands, shouldn’t we keep them as safe as possible?
- Your kids really could get sick. Sure, the odds are against your children getting Covid, and if they do, even longer against them getting seriously ill. But how much do you want to think about “odds” when discussing the health of your own children? Do you really want to roll the dice like that? Theoretically it might be safer. But in practice? Putting your own children at risk is too much to ask. They’re safer at home until there is a vaccine.
- Schools aren’t super spreader events … yet. Even with the evidence that schools aren’t super spreaders, they certainly don’t slow down the spread of infection. More kids and teachers will get Covid-19 if there is in-person schooling than if there isn’t, right? Isn’t that enough reason right there? And with the rate of infection spiking across the country as the weather gets colder, having daily events where people come from all across the community and gather indoors will do nothing to slow it down. “I want my children back to school,” one respondent wrote. “But these little compromises are just making the virus stay so powerful.”
Here in Athens, Georgia, where I live, our public schools are re-opening on November 9. And we are sending our first and third graders back. We understand the risks. But we believe that small children are much, much better served by being back in school. But every family has to make its own decision. And there aren’t many tougher decisions than this one.
But is it safe? I don’t know the answer. It’s an excellent question. Which is why, after all, I am asking.
And now we give you next week’s question: Should you go to religious services in person? Email me at email@example.com your thoughts and answers to the question of the week. You can also leave your responses in the Responses. The simple question: Would you go to a religious service in person right now?
I’ll cull the best answers and they’ll serve as the backbone of next Friday’s piece. So tell me what’s on your mind. I don’t have all the answers. That’s why I need yours.
Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.