The Why Of Opening Schools Matters As Much As The When
Originally posted about three weeks ago. Not much has changed; only become more so. At some point, schools are going to open again. Figuring out when will require some complicated medical and political calculus, and while lots of folks are hoping it will be just as easy as life going back to normal sometime over the summer, nobody is ready to bet the farm, or even a few select outbuildings, on that simple scenario. The “when”of re-opening schools will matter, whether it’s early, late, or right on time. But it will be equally important to talk about the “why.”
It would be great if the “why” was something along the lines of “We want to get back to making good on the promise of a full and free education for every child” or even “We want children to get back to learning and planning for their futures.” There are, unfortunately, less useful arguments in play. Some of the battle over re-opening the US has become starkly political, with GOP lawmakers joining protestors on the steps of state capitols. Perhaps the very worst reason for re-opening US schools (or not) would be in order to score a political victory for one team or the other. Another common pressure for re-opening comes from the desire to re-open the economy. It will be that much harder to get workers back on the job if they have nobody to watch the kids, and so the desire to get workers back on the line will go hand in hand with the push to get students back in the classroom. One may ask, “What difference does it make why we’re re-opening schools, as long as we’re getting them open again?” But the “why” will have a huge effect on how the challenge is approached. If schools are re-opened just as a means to another end (restarting the economy, striking a blow for freedom, etc), then important steps will be skipped and necessary corners may be cut. Opening schools in a time of continued coronavirus will be challenging (I get into that here). Authorities can talk about spacing out desks in classrooms and, somehow, spreading out traffic in the halls, but if all of this hinges on class size reduction, where will all the additional teachers come from? And once you put actual live children, particularly the younger ones, back together in school, it will take roughly fifteen seconds for social distancing rules to be broken. A drop in the spread of the disease and reliable testing will be critical prerequisites for re-opening schools. If the reasons for re-opening schools are not educational reasons, authorities will be tempted to just wave vaguely and say, “Just open them up again and then do that educationy stuff.” If all the attention is given to the custodial role of schools, the educational program will be inadequate. The custodial role will matter. Students will be coming back from a time marked by trauma and disruption. Many will be out of practice when it comes to interacting with other children. Many more will have lost the basic routines of doing school. Teachers will have to deal with all of that baggage before they can even teach. The educational piece will be far more complex than the usual September start-up. Some students are maintaining their education, even moving forward. Some, for a variety of reasons, are not. “Meet the students where they are” will be an extremely challenging directive, because students will be all over the map. Teachers are going to need time, support, and resources. And because many school budgets are going to take a big hit next year districts will have to be committed and clever to fulfill their educational missions. During this pandemic pause, the equity gap between schools is widening; states will have to work hard to close that gap when schools re-open. All of this is challenging stuff, and if our “why” for re-opening schools is “We need somebody to watch the kids so that their parents can get back to work,” the nation is not going to meet that challenge. It’s going to be a back-to-school season like never before.