Carol Burris, experienced teacher and educator, writes here about the importance of reopening schools, with caution. Carol is executive director of the Network for Public Education, but she writes here on her own behalf; NPE has not taken a position on when or whether schools should reopen.

This article appeared on Valerie Strauss’s blog, “The Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post.

When covid-19 hit New South Wales, Australia, the majority of students shifted to remote instruction, with in-school instruction only for those families who needed it. After a few weeks, however, educators began to worry when they saw a reduction in calls to child protective services. It was likely that the reduction was not due to a decrease in child abuse, but rather the absence of the vigilance provided by schools. And officials could not guarantee the safety — or the learning — of some of the most vulnerable students, Education Week’s Madeline Will reported, so they shifted to a different strategy.

By May, New South Wales’ schools began to reopen for all — requiring physical attendance for all students at least one day a week. Now, some form of in-school instruction is happening in every Australian state; some have full attendance requirements and others do not. Each state has developed its plan based on local health needs. Schools have been agile in responding whenever an infection occurred.

As a former teacher and principal, I understand New South Wales’ worry. Schools play a critical role in the lives of children beyond the delivery of instruction. As a high school principal on Long Island, much of my day was spent with counselors and social workers addressing crises in teenagers’ lives. Child protective services was called, on average, once a month.
Combating truancy, school phobia, student depression, and drug dependency were part of our everyday work. The tragedy of student suicide was not unknown to us. Some students needed help talking to parents about their pregnancy or support in leaving an abusive relationship. And then there were the students living with parents who themselves were unwell.

Students at risk can easily slip through cracks. Due to the isolation of remote learning, those cracks have become crevices. Anecdotally, pediatricians are reporting rises in depression, obesity, and stress disorders as well as young children having heart palpitations absent a physical cause.

Research tells us that socially isolated children and adolescents are at risk of depression and anxiety. We know that too much screen time can result in inattention and impulsivity, and mental health disorders in both children and adolescents. And preliminary studies have shown that all but top students are academically falling behind — with the most disadvantaged students experiencing the most significant learning loss.

The Maasai tribe of Africa greet each other with the phrase, “Kasserian ingera,” which means, “And how are the children?” Right now, absent in-person contact, most school’s answer would be, “we don’t know.”

There are some things we do know, however. We know that children aged 10 and under are less likely to be infected by covid-19, less likely to be severely ill, and less likely to transmit the disease. A study of the spread of the disease in Iceland did not find even one instance of a child under 10 years old infecting a parent. A study of Australian schools found that “children are unlikely to transmit the coronavirus to each other or to adults in the classroom.” And the cautious, staged reopening of schools in 22 European nations did not lead to “any significant increase in coronavirus infections among children, parents or staff.”

While that is good news, there is a caveat. Reopening schools as they were before the pandemic was, in one case, a mistake. At first, Israel began reopening schools in a cautious way, with smaller classes and staggered schedules. That reopening was problem-free. Then in mid-May, the economy was fully reopened, and the government decided to throw caution to the wind and abandon the safeguards it had put in place. Infections broke out in several schools that had to be shutdown.

All of this, of course, begs the question, what should American schools do this fall?
The virus may very well be with us for a very long time. A vaccine is unlikely to give us perfect protection and surveys show that one-third of Americans may refuse vaccination.

Recognizing the negative impact of children being separated from in-person schooling, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently advised we pursue the goal of having all students physically present in school, while issuing guidance on how best to keep students and teachers safe.

It would be reckless for states with surging cases to reopen schools as though the virus is not happening. However, there are states where the virus is in decline or where low rates are holding steady. When asked whether schools should reopen this fall, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that decisions should be made locally, based on the severity of the virus.

Yes, it is complicated. It may mean periodic shifts to remote instruction for some classes or even schools if surges return.

Some states may have mid-year openings when the virus retreats.

But that is no reason to throw up so many barriers that it becomes impossible for any school to reopen until (and if) the virus disappears.

A recent petition claims its signers will not return to in-person school until there are 14 covid-free days in the county in which the school is located, along with universal single-payer health care, full payment of all mortgages and rent throughout the pandemic, and the fulfillment of other demands. Decisions about how much in-person time students receive and how much social distancing is required to reduce risk should be informed by science and medicine, not by politics on the one hand or unreasonable fear on the other.

Reopening schools will not be easy or inexpensive. Flexibility and resources will be required. Congress must send funding to states specifically dedicated to ensuring that schools can open safely — money that supplements, not supplants state funding to schools. If we have the funds to bail out corporations, how can we tell our schools to keep children and teachers safe with less?

We must follow the cautious examples of other countries, as well as learn from the success of those centers that have provided childcare for essential workers throughout the pandemic. Adjustments should be made based on grade level and student need.

Even in states that have put the virus in retreat, we will need to start with hybrid models that combine in-person and virtual learning — perhaps beginning as tentatively as New South Wales.

Safety requires small group instruction, health support in every school, masks and other supplies, as appropriate. And as vitally important as economic revival is, our decisions on the reopening of schools must put children first.

Children have been the silent victims of this pandemic. They have been subjected to harm, in part, by irresponsible adults who have refused to do what it takes to put the virus in check.

We owe it to them to not throw up our hands and say, “It is too hard to bring you back to school.” We must answer the question, “And how are the children?” with “better than last spring, and improving every day.”