As parents are starting to realize that, yes, schools will be reopening next month, a lot of them are wondering what the hell we’re doing.
I mean, if it was mission critical to shutter schools nationwide when roughly 30,000 people a day were testing positive for the coronavirus, why is it suddenly OK to reopen schools when that number is over 50,000 and the country’s leading infectious disease expert says we could be hitting 100,000 any time now?
This is not Germany, Norway or Denmark, where schools reopened last spring after citizens dutifully followed the advice of public health experts and dramatically controlled the outbreaks of the virus out of a sense of patriotism and shared purpose.
Still, there are compelling reasons for reopening schools despite all that. Several prominent pediatricians and other experts have made a strong case for it.
Children need school for both their intellectual and their social development. Low-income children need the food provided there. Kids at risk for abuse and neglect need the support and protection provided by teachers. And parents need to be able to work to support their families.
The European countries that reopened schools in April and May have seen no significant increases in infection rates traced to classrooms.
Data show that children are less likely to become infected with COVID-19 and less likely to spread it, so the risks may not be as great as we thought back in March. It takes time to gather scientific data, and now we have more of it to inform our decisions.
So, school district administrators in Denver and around the state have good reasons for making plans to get the kids back in the classroom.
But unlike the rigorous protocols imposed in European schools and the protections for school faculty and staff members, the situation here is utter chaos.
Some districts, including Denver Public Schools, will require masks inside the buildings. Others not so much. Most classrooms are too small for serious social distancing and besides, even where we have the space, we can’t afford to hire the extra teachers needed to handle more classes with fewer students.
Many buildings don’t have windows that open to provide ventilation or the staff members needed to keep the rooms sanitized.
The classrooms are giant petri dishes.
Most districts are offering remote online learning options for families uncomfortable with the idea of their kids returning to the classrooms, and all stand ready to shut down this gurgling science experiment if things get gnarly.
So, in the meantime, it falls to the teachers to try to make this whole thing work without anything close to the kind of support they need.
Like magicians who can make more time in each day, they are expected to provide classroom instruction as well as online classes that can be implemented for a few students or, at a moment’s notice, for all of them.
In DPS and likely in other districts, students will have breakfast and lunch at their desks in their classrooms, which means teachers begin their student contact time early and must relinquish their time off for lunch (or a bathroom break or to call the parents of a troubled child) to supervise the lunch period.
Teachers who get sick – a given even in an ordinary year – will have to have COVID tests and remain isolated until the results are available. Then, if they test positive, they will have to quarantine away from work for 14 days.
Most teachers have about 10 days of paid sick time a year, which means that many will be taking time off without pay. And, just a guess here, but I’m thinking the ranks of willing substitute teachers during a pandemic may not be deep, so covering those classrooms for weeks at a time while teachers are in quarantine will be a joke.
Then, school buildings must close if there are too many children out sick or too few teachers left upright.
At the same time, these teachers with expanded workloads and the imaginary powers required to make it all happen are facing unpaid furlough days and reduced compensation due to budget cuts. And if they do get sick and end up in the hospital, the deductibles and co-pays required by their health care benefits depleted by years of underfunded school budgets will run into thousands of dollars.
Face it, the alternatives are all bad.
Still, I choose to believe that school district administrators are weighing the facts before them and making the best decisions possible given the terrible circumstances.
Despite it all, I support the idea of getting kids back in the classroom. Most of us do. It’s a risk we need to take.
But it’s a big risk, so it’s up to all of us to stop being cavalier about pandemic precautions and do what we must to stop this thing.
The less COVID there is spreading across the community, the less chance there will be that it will race through the schools, level teaching staffs and shut down the economy all over again.
So, c’mon, don’t be a jackass. It’s the least you can do for your kids.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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