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Educators worry about the feasibility of returning to in-person learning

Schools struggle with reopening amid COVID
Schools struggle with reopening amid COVID 06:22

In ordinary times, the photograph of a Georgia high school that went viral earlier this month would not have been particularly notable. The image of students crowding into a hallway, packed like sardines, is usually just a sign that fall is here.

But in a pandemic, with a virus that has infected 5 million and resulted in the deaths of 170,000 Americans, the sight of dozens of students too close together in North Paulding High School, many without masks, sparked conflicting responses from educators and parents sending their children back to school.

The high school soon closed temporarily after nine students and staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Several other schools that have opened to in-person learning in recent weeks have seen upticks in coronavirus cases. In one example, schools in the Martin County School District in Florida reopened at the beginning of last week, but students and teachers were quarantined by the end of it.

The Trump administration is pushing for schools to reopen to in-person learning in the fall. Most school districts have yet to reopen, and many are choosing to begin the year with virtual learning for the time being. Last week, a school district in New Jersey voted to hold all classes remotely, despite Governor Phil Murphy's insistence for months on some form of in-person classes. Two of the largest school districts in the country, Los Angeles and Chicago, have opted to begin the school year with remote learning.

"The lack of consistent leadership, the failure to tackle the curve, the stupidity in how some of these schools opened because they wanted to please Trump more than keeping people safe, has now led to a lot of people being very fearful — parents and teachers alike — even in places where you probably could've reopened and reopened safely," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million educators across the country. (AFT has endorsed Joe Biden for president.)

Sending kids back to school is one of the most fraught topics in the U.S. right now, and the decision by states and school districts about whether to do so affects millions of children, parents, teachers and school administrators. Although experts agree it would be better overall for children to return to in-person learning, the question is how, and whether doing so will put more people in danger.

"There really is no one-size-fits-all solution," said Dr. Megan Collins, the co-director of Johns Hopkins University's Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions and co-founder of the eSchools+ Initiative.

"It's getting to where we're worried about the long-term effects"

Jesse Petrilla began noticing changes in his son soon after he began virtual learning earlier in his kindergarten class.

"We really noticed such a disengagement in his motivation for learning," Petrilla, a small business owner in Orange County, California, said in an interview. "His enthusiasm declined. We noticed a lot more restlessness around the house."

Petrilla's wife had to take a leave from work to care for their two young sons. The couple's elder son is set to enter first grade, and Petrilla has concerns about the development of his social skills and his capacity to learn.

"It's getting to where we're worried about the long-term effects," Petrilla said.

Petrilla is one of the plaintiffs in Brach v. Newsom, a lawsuit filed against California Governor Gavin Newsom seeking an injunction against his order to keep schools in high-risk counties closed until they can meet certain public health metrics. The lawsuit is spearheaded by the Center for American Liberty, whose founder, Harmeet Dhillon, is the national committeewoman from California for the Republican National Committee.

In a formal opposition brief, the state argued that the parents acting as plaintiffs are relying on "inaccurate and outdated beliefs" that children do not spread COVID-19.

Petrilla said that he simply believes that the decision to reopen schools should be left to individual school districts and not to the state government.

"Nobody's talking about going back to business as usual, we're just saying, 'Hey, let the local authorities look at the data,'" Petrilla said.

A permanent injunction hearing in the case has been scheduled for August 31.

"I think there's no perfect solution, but we can come up with the best possible solution," Petrilla said.

Virtual learning doesn't just affect students' social development, but can present a particular challenge for disadvantaged students. Collins noted that going back to school is especially important for students in low-income families — not just as education centers, but for fulfilling basic needs.

"Schools are also the source of a number of community resources, especially in low-income communities and for children of color, for children with special learning needs, and other vulnerable populations," Collins said. Millions of children across the country rely on meals they get at school. School nurses' offices are also where many receive their primary health care treatment.

"It's a place of supervision and safety, particularly for children whose parents are essential workers, or children who might be living in unstable housing," Collins said. Schools can also be a haven for children who are being abused or neglected at home, and teachers are often the ones who alert social services to such a situation.

Compounding these issues are inequities in students' access to the internet or computers. Many low-income families only have one device, meaning children would have to share their computer with other family members, thus interrupting their virtual learning. Others don't have access to the internet at all, or only spotty coverage.

"Not all students will experience virtual learning in the same way, and not all students have the same resources to be successful with virtual learning in the same way," Collins explained.

Many of the children who will suffer most from the lack of in-person tutelage also tend to live in low-income areas and communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

Collins emphasized the importance of reopening schools in an equitable manner, and focusing on providing educational resources to the children who most need them.

"We already know there are such significant health disparities and health equity and achievement gaps," Collins said. "COVID-19 related school closures have only exacerbated all of those."

"It's going to fail disastrously"

Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, has been sounding alarms about returning to in-person learning for months. In July, he proposed a plan for schools to open nationwide beginning on October 1 — contingent on creating a national strategy to contain the virus.

Hotez is worried about schools coming up with plans to reopen without ensuring community transmission has been contained. In areas with low transmission, like Maine or upstate New York, he says it's probably fine to reopen schools with social distancing measures in place. But in areas which have seen a steady uptick in cases, Hotez predicted "it's going to fail disastrously."

"It's not simply just the due diligence to rearrange classrooms. The fundamental piece has to be around lowering virus transmission," Hotez said.

Hotez said he was impressed with how Houston-area schools were preparing for reopening. Zeph Capo, President of the Houston American Federation of Teachers, said this week his union is working on its own COVID tracking system to collect data on the virus in local schools.

But Hotez said transmission in the Houston area is still too high for students to return to school. Even if community transmission is not significantly increasing, he said, "it's still plateauing at that thousand-mile-an-hour level."

"We're still setting up teachers to fail unless we can greatly reduce transmission," Hotez said. "Even if you do everything right, like they're doing here in Houston, it will still fail."

Proponents of reopening schools argue children are less susceptible to the virus than adults. However, a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association showed over 400,000 children had tested positive for the virus as of August 13. Moreover, there was a 24% increase in cases in the two-week period between July 30 and August 13.

Although children are less likely to develop severe cases of the virus, children who are asymptomatic may unwittingly spread the virus to teachers and other adults at school. A recent study from South Korea showed children ages 10 to 19 were just as likely to spread the virus as adults.

"Teachers and staff will start to get sick and in some cases go to the hospital, that will spread across the school district, and then it's lights out," Hotez predicted.

Weingarten, the president of AFT, said she was hearing concerns from members about returning to school and potentially contracting the virus from their students.

"No teacher is going to be able to teach if she's scared that she is going to carry the virus home with her," Weingarten said.

Weingarten gave the example of Newark Public Schools, the largest school district in New Jersey, which is opting to conduct all-remote learning until mid-November. Newark had initially planned to offer in-person classes 5 days a week with options for remote learning.

"Part of this is just devastating because there's no good choices here. Remote is not a good choice, but not being safe is not a good choice either," Weingarten said.

"They had impressed me as being ready," Weingarten said about Newark's original plan to open with a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning. "But even though that was the responsible thing to do, it got people scared."

Weingarten said she now believes most schools should reopen to in-person learning in a phased manner, slowly bringing teachers and students back into school to build confidence for educators that they will not become sick. She said she believed there was still time to "course correct," meaning communities could work to contain the virus and send students back to school.

Hotez also expressed optimism that communities acting in good faith could work to contain the virus and resume in-person learning.

"People seem to think it's inevitable, that we can't do anything about it," Hotez said. "But we can fix it. We can fix it by October."

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