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Education in time of pandemic

By Rep. Bradley Byrne

Last week I had a virtual conference with the leaders of the local school systems in our district. Starting a new school year is a difficult task in the best of times. Doing so in the middle of a pandemic with the disease spreading as it is now makes this normally difficult job truly daunting.

I greatly appreciate what these leaders and their staffs are going through. Over $500 million of the CARES Act money Congress sent to Alabama will be used to help schools deal with COVID-19, and the purpose of our call was to bring them up to speed on that federal money coming their way and to offer them the support of my office.

The first and most important decision our local school systems have to make is whether to allow students to return this year in person. Most of our local systems in southwest Alabama have decided to do that starting in August, but with an option for parents to decide if they prefer for their children to only participate virtually. The Mobile County system has elected to delay start of the school year until Sept. 1 and provide instruction during the first quarter, which lasts nine weeks, in remote fashion only. Then they will reassess.

Actually, all of these systems will have to constantly monitor the situation and potentially reassess based on how things are going. It’s important to know that flu season begins in October and peaks between December and February, which is relevant because public health experts warn that COVID-19 spread could worsen during this same time. We will just have to wait and see because like so much else with regard to this disease, the experts really don’t know.

Why is there such a push to reopen schools? We had a hearing on the Education Committee last month, and testimony indicated that virtual or distance learning may work for some students but for many it doesn’t. That may be because they don’t have access to the internet or because they just need in-person help from a teacher physically present in the classroom. For the many students for whom distance learning doesn’t work, virtual classes are the same as no classes.

In April, the Collaborative for Student Growth, a non-partisan education research organization, released a study on the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. It projected that the early closure last spring resulted in a 30 percent loss in reading gains for the academic year, and a 50 percent loss in mathematics. And that was for missing only part of a semester. That same month the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning research organization, released preliminary findings on the cost to students’ future earnings caused by the spring closures. It came to a loss of over $1300 in future income per year, per student, and a 12 percent hit to national GDP.

On the health side, in May the U.S. Center for Disease Control issued a resource for school leaders called “Considerations for Schools” which lays out how schools can open with safe environments and operations. Last week it issued new guidelines for schools and a statement on “The Importance of Reopening American Schools This Fall,” concluding that the health risk of COVID-19 to children is small when compared to the considerable benefits of in person education.

And, just a few weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatricians, which is “Dedicated to the Health of All Children,” issued a “Guidance for School Re-Entry” in which it emphasized that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” It noted that “children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease” from COVID-19. It also provided detail guidance for schools.

There is another important consideration here. The AAP found that “schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.” At a time when the US is having a major national discussion on inequality, we need to consider the potential long term, serious and disproportionately negative effect not opening schools will have on poor children and children of color. They are more likely not to have Internet at home or a caregiver there during the school day as their parents are more likely to have to work. Not being in school for an extended period is a big issue for any child, but for these children it will likely mean a permanent, lifelong set back.

Finally, we all should include in our considerations the health and safety of our educators. Putting them physically in a classroom exposes them to risks, and some of them have justifiably expressed their concerns. The CDC guidance on healthy school environments and operations will help protect students and teachers. But there will also be extra stress on our educators as they cope with the challenges posed by the disease, and the AAP’s Guidance directly addresses the need to help them with that stress. As with health care providers during this pandemic, educators operating in person are front line heroes and deserve our support.

As we work our way through the experience with this disease, let’s not forget that there will be a vaccine that effectively provides immunity, and an effective treatment so that those who have it won’t face hospitalization or death. As a result, we will return to a new normal in which we won’t be so distanced from one another and schools will operate closer to the old normal. Let’s make decisions for today with an eye to this future new normal. And let’s take care of our children in their health AND their education.