Back to School: The United States’ Pandemic Education Plan (Or Lack Thereof)

Amidst copious other concerns brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the American government is having difficulty deciding how to handle an activity that at least one billion children take part in daily: school. With cases and deaths growing out of control in some parts of the country and steadily decreasing in others, the United States’ approach to reopening schools for students of all ages while also keeping them safe continues to be uncertain ­­– all while the beginning of the traditional American school year looms closer and closer.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has insisted both that “kids have got to get back in school” and that the process of getting them there should not be led by the national government. Devos told Fox News that each state must independently “look seriously at expanding the choice program they already have” to ensure that schools reopen at the August/September start of the school year.

Countries around the globe have returned their children to school with widespread precautions and few problems. Meanwhile, American school districts have made only minimal progress in developing coronavirus safety plans.

While American colleges have released modified school calendars, campus regulations, and hybrid (both in-person and online) courses, most grade schools’ parents, students, and teachers remain ill-informed about when and how their classes will resume in one and a half months. Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association – America’s largest education union – is worried about how little American schools have planned. Without concrete precautions to keep students, staff, and their families safe from infection, reopening schools will only add to coronavirus’s death toll. “People are panicked, and parents should be panicked,” García told Politico.

There has also been vocal backlash from teachers and teachers’ unions, who are overwhelmingly pushing for online schooling. Secretary DeVos responded with criticism to the unions, arguing that teachers’ stances “seem to be centered more around adult needs and issues than…about what’s right for kids.”

With schools thrown into confusion, state guidelines should provide a sense of order. It is unsettling, then, that the states have such different approaches to reopening schools. In California, for example, a guidebook released by the state Department of Education requires schools to mandate facial coverings, limit the number of students in class and on campus at once, eliminate buffet-style lunch and contact sports, and more. Meanwhile, Florida’s state guidelines only suggest masks in schools, leaving school districts to create their own plans regarding every aspect of their students’ health and safety. In Iowa, the government planned to make masks optional in schools until public retaliation forced them to reconsider. The lack of national guidelines allows states like Florida, with indefinite stances on integral aspects of coronavirus safety, to set precedents for the rest. This nationwide disconnect is not conducive to upholding every American student’s right to a safe education.

Another underrated aspect of the plan to reopen schools is how it will affect poorer public schools and minority race students. If schools decide to go online, for example, providing each student with the learning resources they would need – a laptop, headphones, school supplies, a safe learning environment – would be very difficult for the underfunded schools which tend to serve children of color. Conversely, if schools go back in person, hungry students who rely on school lunches would be left empty-handed if their school has banned school lunch due to health concerns. These aspects, combined with the proven fact that communities of color with less wealthy schools are more vulnerable to the coronavirus, would lead to higher infection and mortality rates than those faced by more well-off schools. Both the states and the federal government have done little to address these concerns.

The United States must form a concrete national plan to assist all schools in welcoming their students safely, whether in-person or online. A quality education cannot be ensured in every single American school district unless detailed requirements are implemented and monitored nationally, especially requirements that pay special interest to coronavirus’s status in different communities and district regions. The United States can take notes on successful models developed and implemented by countries around the world.

EdSource told the story of 7-year-old Chengbao Shang from Guangzhou – a city in China, the virus’s original epicenter – and his typical school day in the age of COVID-19. Before Chengbao leaves for school, his parents check and report his temperature to his school, and it is taken again when he arrives on campus. Throughout the day, he maintains a distance of 3 feet from his classmates, whether walking in the hallway or at his own desk in a class with 51 other students, he explained to EdSource. These precautions have kept Chengbao’s school extremely functional, and, so far, he and his classmates are perfectly healthy. South of Guangzhou, in Hong Kong, private schools require masks, and younger students attend half-days to ensure classrooms are properly disinfected.

In Europe, social distancing “pods” or “bubbles” are common in schools. Students in Ghent, Belgium; Amsterdam; and the Netherlands are solely allowed to be in mask-free contact with a small group of fellow classmates, according to EdSource. These pods are a successful alternative to masks that can be implemented in the few American classes where students have medical conditions which prevent them from wearing masks.

Overall, Science magazine discovered, there seem to be patterns between most re-openings across the globe. These patterns indicate that “a combination of keeping student groups small and requiring masks and some social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe.” Otto Helve, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, explained, “[W]ith some changes to schools’ daily routines, the benefits of attending school seem to outweigh the risk.”

If the United States can develop similar plans as cohesive as those around the world, hopefully students and teachers will feel safe, and be safe, back at school in the fall. It is essential that American students, both domestic and international, college and elementary, get the safe and quality education that the US champions – especially after so many’s school years were abruptly affected with the beginning of the pandemic. Open-ended guidance is not an adequate method to provide this education when the health and safety of children, teachers, and other school faculty are at stake, and when American families will be detrimentally affected.

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