Who Clamors for School Reopening Amid Surge in Coronavirus Cases?

With the possibility of overwhelming hospital facilities and staff, it is now necessary for the US to do everything possible to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the past, we have obviously made mistakes by not shutting down the main avenues through which the virus is transmitted from person to person: indoor gatherings. Early in the Fall, schools remain closed in most areas but bars, gyms, restaurants, churches and weddings continue. And in New York City, with an apparent second wave of infections, schools close doors first while bars remain open. Current data do indicate that schools in areas where in-person learning continues do not contribute significantly to the transmission of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, at this point where every state in the country is seeing a rapid and uncontrolled rise in COVID cases, it is obviously not prudent to send our young to schools. Yet, in the county I live in, a group called OpenFCPS still clamors for students to have the choice to attend school in-person. The word "choice" in this case is really no different from the way it is used in the phrase "school choice". The choice here is more about privileges one can afford. The pandemic is disproportionately affecting low-income families and minorities. This is further exacerbated by lack of access to adequate health care. It is therefore not surprising that most families in these groups do not want to send their children to attend school in-person. Parents of Black and Hispanic children are, due to their own experiences, know quite well how bad the pandemic is. As reported by Kaiser, parents of color prefer schools to remain virtual in order to prevent their children and their teachers from getting sick:

"Reflecting the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on those with lower incomes and on communities of color, there are some notable differences in worry levels between parents of color and White parents, and between those with lower and those with higher household incomes. Nine in ten parents of color (91%) say they are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about their child getting sick with coronavirus if they return to school in the fall, compared to 55% of White parents who say the same. Similarly, about nine in ten of parents of color say they are worried about teachers and other staff getting sick with coronavirus (92%), children being unable or unwilling to physically distance (91%), and that they or a family member will get sick with coronavirus (90%). Far fewer White parents say they are worried about each of these concerns." - KFF Health Tracking Poll, July 2020

Advocates of school reopening often point to the possibility of increasing learning gaps during virtual schools. If this is truly the concern then attending school in-person should not be a choice, but should be reserved for those who are falling behind. Since communities of color are harder hit by the virus, their priorities are clear. It is truly heartening that these families are more worried about teachers getting sick than their children falling behind. The health and lives of our teachers cannot be sacrificed. 

While some may automatically assume that distance learning increases learning gaps, there are studies out there that show the opposite. Truly, distance learning comes with challenges and drawbacks, but it also forces us to use technology. With distance learning, my children, for instance, are much more aware of their schedules, assignments, and assessments. Teachers are likewise forced to use tools on their laptop to keep track of their students' progress. Both differentiated and individualized instruction become easier to apply when the teacher and students are not all physically present inside one classroom. There is less anxiety. Students do not even have to worry what to wear for school. There is data out there that students who often fall behind maybe thriving in a virtual environment. Achievement gaps, for example, have been observed to narrow down in mathematics for K-12 schools in Germany. 

Above copied from
Spitzer, M., & Musslick, S. (2020, November 25). Academic performance of K-12 students in an online-learning environment for mathematics increased during the shutdown of schools in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. https://doi.org/10.35542/osf.io/jncwt

In the above graph, the black line represents no difference between 2019 (traditional) and 2020 (virtual). What is observed is the green line which has a slope less than one. What this means is that students who are making more mistakes in 2019 are making less mistakes in the virtual environment. Overall, there is a gain for all students since the y-intercept is below zero, but there is a greater gain for weaker students. The achievement gap is therefore narrowed. 

With this pandemic environment, there maybe a greater focus on what really matters. We see that clearly in families of color who do not clamor for school reopening because they place the health and safety of teachers and their students at highest priority.