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Dr. Stephanie Burroughs, Ed.D.

Curriculum Leader, K-12 Education

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When discussing opening schools, we must look to global examples

Image from Getty Images, depicting early school openings in Germany

 

When looking at the approaches other countries have employed to open their schools, it is abundantly clear that opening in full should be off the table. For starters, businesses across the country have opened in phases and continue to be at reduced capacity. We should be affording our schools with the same level of caution and consideration to ensure that when schools do open we are not forced to backtrack. It should also be noted that, with the exception of Sweden, the countries that opened safely did so when the daily cases were low and when the country had confidence in their ability to trace the spread of the virus. We owe it to our kids to look seriously at these models because our kids deserve to feel valued and protected by the adults in charge of their care. 

To do this well and to support learning no matter what the medium, we cannot be at odds with our stakeholders. We need parents to support our schools and to trust the judgement of education professionals and local boards of health. We must acknowledge that our educators are highly skilled professionals and understand that they need everyone's support to be able to do their job. And most importantly, we must listen to our student's social-emotional needs and not use the term social-emotional as a political tool.

We need our parents to accept that remote and hybrid learning models are the safest way forward.

I've previously discussed why opening schools needs to continue with the hypothesis that children are vectors. In this article, I talk about the need for districts to prioritize safety over comfort. In order for our schools to open safely, they must have the full support of the community in observing safety guidelines and being flexible with student schedules.  Let's take a look at how other countries have prioritized re-opening schools:

  • Priority #1: Control the spread of the virus - Both Germany and South Korea prioritized controlling the spread of the virus with ramped up testing and protocols for closing schools immediately at the hint of an infection. When Germany re-opened schools, they prioritized their secondary school population and kept younger students at home. An article discussing Germany's approach highlighted bi-weekly testing of students and staff, and observing safety guidelines like physical distancing and hygiene as drivers for keeping schools open. When South Korea initially re-opened schools they did so at reduced capacity, continuing to offer online learning to students when not in attendance in school. According to an article on South Korea's continued commitment to controlling the spread, the country has shut down schools when necessary to stop the spread of the virus. This was initiated in one instance when a 6 year old boy contracted the virus from his teacher. 

  • Priority #2: Reduce the number of students in school at once - Countries that have done well in re-opening schools have reduced the number of students in the building by staggering schedules and prioritizing learning for specific age groups. An article in the Japan Times highlights Japan's approach to re-opening schools. Japan had students attend on staggering days, reducing class size to avoid the dangers of overcrowding, and shortened the length of the school day. These efforts were of course coupled with students and staff wearing masks.  In an article on Denmark's approach to re-opening schools, it is again clear that countries that exercise caution and safety are able to keep schools open. Elementary students only attended in person at first while secondary students continued in a remote environment. This allowed schools to utilize additional space and adhere to safety guidelines for their younger student populations. 

  • Priority #3: Follow the safety guidelines - In a U.S. news article discussing the re-opening plans for Israel, Japan, Uruguay, and Sweden the author compared the differences between the countries in re-opening schools. Israel re-opened its schools after successfully getting cases down, but did so on a "staggered schedule paired with mask mandates and social distancing rules." It is important to first note that Israel did not open in full and that it's surge in cases that forced school closures has been attributed to a lack of follow through on safety guidelines in schools. Although Sweden has been advertised as the country that has been able to keep schools open, a deeper dive into the details reveals that Sweden kept schools up to 9th grade open with the older populations learning remotely. Also in an article on Sweden's approach, it is revealed that without safety precautions and reductions in class size there were several outbreaks that did result in the deaths of staff. 

  • Priority #4: Re-open in phases - There's a reason why the country has re-opened in phases and at reduced capacity. In doing so, we are able to monitor the safety of individuals. When Austria re-opened schools, they prioritized secondary students in a phased re-opening but also coupled this approach with splitting students into two groups that each attended classes for half of the week. An article on Austria's approach discussed how this initial phase would be rolled out in May with the intention of monitoring its success to prepare for an eventual full re-open. When the UK opened schools, they appeared to have done so in phases as well. Vulnerable populations and children of essential workers continued to learn remotely and it was estimated that 50% of parents kept their children home to engage remotely. 

We must support our students socially, emotionally and academically. 

Organizations like the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have come out strong on the need for students to be in school and the reality that our public education system does a significant amount for our students beyond academics. Recent guidelines from the CDC have contradicted their initial 6 foot distance recommendation that had originally caused school districts angst in planning for in-person learning while at the same time the American Academy of Pediatrics teamed up with national education agencies to support a safety first approach to returning to schools. 

"Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics."

Our children are watching and yes we should be worrying about them socially, emotionally, and academically. But they are not to be the victims of political tug of war or a chip to be played in a poker game. We must do a better job at supporting student mental health and thinking through creative ways to continue to support our children whether they are learning remotely, in a hybrid model, or full in-person learning. What concerns me is the notion that returning students to their physical space will somehow be the magic wand for student social and emotional well-being. It won't. They've experienced this pandemic too and they need our help no matter what school looks like. 

We must remove barriers and support our educators so that they can do their jobs well. 

What is absent from this conversation is the need for a public outcry to support our schools with the appropriate funding to make learning work well for our students no matter what the medium. When coupling re-opening plans from other countries with the mental health needs of our children it is clear that K-12 schools need more funding, not less. There are also significant barriers to supporting our students that the pandemic has brought to the forefront of education conversations. I wrote about these barriers in a previous article on equity in education and the need to take seriously equity in funding, access to technology, and equity in quality professional learning.  

Public education did not cause the issues with education the pandemic has highlighted. Under-funding public education has widened the opportunity gap and will continue to do so as long as we continue to attack our teachers with pitchforks and torches instead of the politicians who are responsible for these decisions. We must change the conversation on public education and shift toward supporting our educators in any way we can to make equal education opportunities possible for our students. We can start with acknowledging the impossible task our teachers face and take seriously the needs of our children in order for them to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

 

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