Getting kids back in school shouldn’t be this difficult

  • Saturday, February 20, 2021 1:30am
  • Opinion

Kids need to be in school. This seems to be an epiphany for some who, a year ago, suggested sending a teacher into a classroom was the equivalent of landing on the beach at Normandy.

This is the problem in a world of extremes where every issue, no matter how fundamental, is politically charged. If you believe children need to be in school, you want to kill teachers. If you believe businesses need to open, you care more about money than human life.

In October, the Atlanta Journal Constitution released a poll that showed 87% of Republicans supported the resumption of in-person classes while only 34% of Democrats favored reopening.

These numbers say a lot about where we are as a society. I’m firmly convinced that if Gallup conducted a poll asking the question, “Do you think puppies are cute?” the numbers would somehow fall along political lines.

Now, some prominent Democrats, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot among them, are pushing teachers’ unions to get their members back in classrooms. Lightfoot, according to the Chicago Tribune, has spent $70 million making schools safe for students to return.

It would be easy to say unions are holding students and parents hostage which, of course, they are. But they’re also preventing their own members, most of whom I believe want to be in the classroom, from doing the work they believe they were called to do.

It should surprise absolutely no one that remote learning is an unmitigated disaster. The only positive might be that its failure will short-circuit any momentum for both public and higher education to move to a predominantly online modality.

For starters, scores of minority students – primarily Black and Hispanic – don’t have access to online learning. Those students who do, regardless of race or ethnicity, are falling behind.

Since schools closed in March, the average student has lost about a third to a full year’s worth of learning in reading, according to a Stanford University study. A few months ago the Wall Street Journal mentioned a study of schools in Broward County, Fla., that found “52% of students in grades 6-12 don’t feel motivated to complete distance-learning assignments. About 45% said they almost never receive adult help at home to complete assignments.”

And those are the students who actually show up online. Student absence rates have doubled during the pandemic.

“Student absenteeism rates are higher for schools and districts that have stuck with full-time remote learning, but they’re also up in schools doing full-time in-person instruction or a mix of remote and in-person learning,” according to Education Week.

It gets worse. More suicidal children are showing up in emergency rooms.

“The kids that we are seeing now in the emergency department are really at the stage of maybe even having tried or attempted or have a detailed plan,” Dr. Vera Feuer, director of pediatric emergency psychiatry at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of Northwell Health in New York, told NPR.

What’s even more shocking than these numbers is the ongoing debate about whether or how to get children back in school.

The majority of private schools in the country made the necessary adjustments and reopened for in-person learning in the fall. Five months later there haven’t been any significant COVID-19 outbreaks traced to private schools.

In Lexington, Ky., private schools, such as the Sayre School, ignored Gov. Andy Beshear and opened anyway. Sayre didn’t just throw open the doors. School administrators, parents and students came up with a plan – social distancing, mask wearing, plexiglass and so on – and figured it out.

Sending our kids to school shouldn’t be this difficult. I know this is a “We put a man on the moon” argument but it seems appropriate under the circumstances.

This is also cautionary tale, as if we needed another, about how political partisanship and broken government prevent us from reaching agreement on how to deal with even the most basic issues.

There’s a long list of intractable problems facing our country. Sending children to school shouldn’t be one of them.

Rich Manieri is a journalist, author and currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. manieri2@gmail.com.

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