Base a return to schools on evidence, not wishful thinking
There are good reasons for wanting to get children out of the house and back into classrooms. But combine all those good reasons and it’s still the height of irresponsibility to mandate that kids all go back to class right now in the teeth of a strengthening pandemic.
Thank God that Florida schools are controlled at the county level rather than the state or, even worse, the national level. Schools in Florida have district boards and local superintendents whose mandate is education, not politics.
You can’t say the same for the state or Washington, where those in authority are issuing the unfunded mandate that all schools need to be open with the kids in their chairs – and local districts, you somehow have to find the resources and methods to do it safely in a pandemic.
You don’t need to be an expert in either education or public health to know that there is no way on earth that schools in Florida should be mandated to reopen in the fall even if we had the resources to do it – and we clearly don’t have them.
Mandating that they all open fully with whatever resources we can muster is requiring parents to send children into danger and forcing teachers and staffs to face that peril as well, with absolutely no guarantee of social distancing or air quality to minimize the likelihood of airborne contagion.
School systems including Miami-Dade have crafted multi-tier plans for allowing students to return to school. Those plans rest on each school’s structure, the pandemic’s strength locally, the funds to do the job right, and the willingness of parents to send kids back.
Miami-Dade public schools last week asked parents how many at each school wanted children to remain home and how many planned to send them back to classrooms when the level of Covid-19 in the county makes that even possible.
The percentage planning for children to be in class was to determine how many students slots would be needed in every classroom in every school and whether that could be accomplished at a level of health safety. Solid evidence-based decision-making is built into these plans.
On the other hand, the federal executive branch is calling for schools to open wide on penalty of loss of federal funds and Florida is mindlessly following this mandate, which is decidedly not based on the kind of reasoning that Miami-Dade is using to determine what path to follow.
Local districts need all the support they can get from parents and counties to continue to base their paths on local conditions and pragmatic, evidence-based thinking rather than the wishful thinking blowing through higher levels of government. The school districts have a far greater chance of getting it right.
We all recognize the advantages under normal circumstances of making sure public schools are open, strongly funded and heavily attended.
Being close to quality teachers spurs learning. Socialization gains in school. Organized sports and extra-curricular activities add character. Classrooms build deportment. Interaction with others in and out of class is part of education. Teacher oversight increases attention to lessons. Special-needs children get vital help in school. And for some children, a school lunch is the only meal they can count on.
You could go on and on.
Ask the kids: if they’re honest, most of them will tell you they learned more in school than at home. Most adults are good parents but they aren’t teachers.
Washington and Florida are correct in one thing: in a shattered economy, we need kids in classrooms so parents can stop being watchdogs and go back to their jobs, beefing up the labor force that powers the nation.
But sending kids to school just so you can send parents to work is both myopic and cynical – it doesn’t factor in the human and social costs of telling parents that a job is far more important than their kids’ and teachers’ health.
Even with optional return of kids to classes, parents would face ultra-hard choices of income versus family health. Miami-Dade is right in allowing each family to make that tough choice rather than issue a mandate by a president or a governor who cannot possibly know local health conditions or what is best for each family.
A tiny group of families have always chosen home schooling. Now, health conditions have forced huge numbers of other families to reluctantly join into schooling at home.
Miami-Dade County Schools have it right: all stay home until it’s possible to make a choice, then let each family decide when it’s time to send the kids back to school. The county has a flexible plan for that, Tallahassee is inflexible, and Washington is totally unreasonable.
This isn’t politics. It’s common sense. Both public health and education must be based on evidence, not wishful thinking.