The question on every parent’s mind right now is, “What will school look like in the fall?” Knowing that I am a teacher, people have naturally asked me my opinion on the matter. As an educator and as an opinion writer, my honest answer is simply this: I do not know. 

Travis Naughton

No one knows.

I do know that since schools closed in March, nearly 140,000 Americans have died of complications caused by Covid-19. I do not know how many more would have died had we continued to send 50 million children to school during that time (as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would have us do in the fall).

Classes are set to resume in many school districts just one short month from now. (Southern Boone is scheduled to begin the fall semester on September 8 due to construction on the primary building.) With positive tests for the virus and hospitalizations spiking throughout much of the country, we should be asking ourselves if sending 50,000,000 students and millions of teachers and staff back into their overcrowded buildings is a wise idea.

While the White House is closed for public tours due to the danger posed by the coronavirus, President Trump and his education secretary both insist that it is safe for schools to re-open to all students for in-seat instruction next month. Trump has even threatened to withhold funding from already cash-strapped districts that disagree.

Studies show that the Covid-19 mortality rate for children is very small. Some estimate the rate to be around .001%. If only half of the children in America’s public schools contract the highly contagious virus over the course of the coming school year, then even at that miniscule mortality rate, we could expect 25,000 children to die.

I don’t know about you, but 25,000 dead children doesn’t seem like a miniscule number to me. 

Of course, those children who become infected at school will take the virus home with them, potentially transmitting it to their siblings, parents, and grandparents. We know for a fact that the mortality rate increases dramatically in older patients. Therefore, it stands to reason that if millions of schoolchildren bring the virus home to millions of older family members, the amount of death and suffering could be devastating.

I am a teacher. I love my students, and I love being at school. It’s my happy place. However, as I watch the positive test rate climb higher and higher, (which is not a result of increased testing, but a direct indicator of an increase in the amount of actual infections), I grow increasingly concerned about packing our schools full of kids and teachers a few weeks from now.

As I said in last week’s column, I believe kids need face-to-face interaction with their teachers and peers. Humans are not meant to live in isolation from one another. However, because many Americans have stubbornly refused to remain socially distant, wear masks, and exercise the self-discipline it takes to slow the spread of this lethal disease this summer, I fear that safely conducting in-person school for all students may not be possible this fall.

So, what are our choices? Closing schools and using alternative methods of instruction (AMI) is one option. In the spring, schools used AMI to teach children via online instruction or paper packets. Zoom meetings, Google Meets, and other online platforms work reasonably well for older students who are able to use technology from home. Younger children and those without suitable internet access received packets of papers from their teachers to work on at home and hand-in at a later time. Neither of these methods are ideal, but they are better than kids receiving no instruction or review materials at all.

The drawback to distance learning is that parents who work outside of the home are forced to find childcare for their younger children. Crowded daycare centers could potentially be just as dangerous as crowded classrooms. Ideally, at least one parent could work from home while their children are learning from home, but even this arrangement has its drawbacks. If you are one of those parents who tried to work from home while also helping your children with their AMI work in the spring, then you know how challenging this can be.

Another option is turning to a hybrid system similar to what Southern Boone is doing right now during summer school. Half of the students in a class attend in-person school while the other half work on AMI packets at home. After two weeks, the two groups swap places. 

In other models, districts are discussing the possibility of half of the students attending school Monday and Tuesday while the other half attends Thursday and Friday with a deep cleaning of the building on Wednesday and the weekend.

The hybrid model is, in my opinion, almost as risky as full-time school for all. Hickman High School in Columbia, for example, has approximately 1800 students. Limiting the building to half-capacity would still mean that 900 students and dozens of teachers and staff will be in one building at the same time. Do we really think sending 1000 people into a school building every day during a worsening pandemic is a safe alternative? 

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these difficult questions. But I do know that the plan being pushed by the president and his education secretary (a person who never worked in education prior to her appointment) just as the pandemic is becoming exponentially worse is a reckless and dangerous one.