When and how to reopen schools has become a central question in the COVID-19 pandemic, with strong feelings, anxiety and high stakes for all of us.
We know from experience.
One of us is a social studies teacher who has worked at a Boston area public school for the past decade. The other is a public health professor, primary care doctor and parent of elementary school children. We first connected through a tense email exchange over an op-ed that argued that schools can be reopened if transmission is kept low.
One of us felt the argument to reopen schools was dangerous and out of touch with teachers’ real-world experiences. The other felt the real harm to children from being home for months has been greatly underappreciated by some opponents of reopening.
Despite our differing views, we kept talking. And we found some common ground, including frustration with how polarized the public discourse has been. This challenge cannot be addressed in simple absolutes; it can only be addressed by unpacking the situation’s complexities and nuances.
This article is our own first step in that effort.
Common Ground And Key Differences
We both believe — as do most parents and teachers — that in-person schooling has tremendous value largely because of the work that teachers do in the classroom. The real public health risks of not attending school are well documented: loss of learning, food and parental income insecurity, concerns over physical and emotional health, and the inequities in these outcomes along racial and socioeconomic lines.
We also both believe in science. Real evidence supports systems and procedures that would allow us to get back to the classroom and keep risks low for students, teachers and staff.
We disagree somewhat on which of these safeguards need to be in place to make the risk-benefit tradeoff of in-person school justifiable. But we both have concerns about how feasibly these procedures can be implemented in all schools without a major influx of resources.
Our students, especially those in poorer districts, attend school buildings that were public health crises before the global pandemic, with overcrowded classrooms and poor ventilation that have not been fixed for decades. Many teachers and community members are skeptical that they will be addressed in a single summer.
Most reopening plans call for complex schedules, cohorting of students and social distancing in the classroom. These changes will cause disruptions to teaching and learning. We must consider how in-person teaching under these conditions stacks up against the alternatives. We are not going back to the same school experience we left.
We also know that online learning did not work for many students this past spring. Remote learning presents challenges and highlights inequities. However, from a teaching perspective the emergency learning we saw in March should not be what we see in September — if teachers are given resources, training, and time to plan.
It is also important to remember that for some student populations — including younger students, special education, English language learners and those with home circumstances that preclude productive remote learning — some version of in-person instruction as soon as possible should be a top priority.
Perhaps our main area of disagreement is over how many — and how quickly — most students and teachers should be returning to school. This reflects our different experiences — as a teacher knowing what the practicality of COVID-guideline schooling would look like, versus the lived experience of a parent raising children at home for months without school — as well as our assessment of the data.
And yet we both agree that when schools re-open, we need to prioritize and protect our most vulnerable community members — high-risk students, teachers and staff — from both health and educational standpoints.
Even those supporting a return to in-person school should acknowledge that this will not be a feasible option for all teachers and students. And none of this planning can happen without monumental efforts from entire communities pulling in the same direction.
What We Can Do
Most people with strong feelings about reopening schools likely share the same eventual goal: to resume the benefits of in-person school while keeping risks low for kids, teachers and the community. But like the two of us, many readers probably disagree on some — or many — important details.
So what action steps can we take, even with those differences?
First, we can be advocates for making schools safer for everyone by calling for increases in school funding -- especially with an eye to equity. We can call our legislators on Beacon Hill and in Washington, D.C. and demand more money for additional staffing, testing and building improvements. Congress is currently considering billions in education aid, but some Senate proposals are far too low, and these resources must come soon and without punitive strings attached.
Second, we can help lower rates of community spread. We can tell our state and local officials to slow down or reverse the reopening of high-risk adult gatherings, so children have a better chance of getting back to school. If your home is in orange or red on this map, push your officials to return to square one in getting this infection under control. Even if your area is in yellow, like Massachusetts, activities like indoor dining, gyms, and bars likely spread infections at rates higher than schools and will make it harder to keep schools open. And of course, wear masks.
Finally, don’t take extreme positions and don’t assume bad faith from people with different views than yours. Parents who have weighed the tradeoffs and support resuming in-person schooling (including many physician colleagues who are intimately familiar with COVID) are not being reckless with other people’s lives, just as teachers who oppose reopening at this time are not abandoning their students or trying to ease their workload.
Taking a simplistic view of the situation does not make our collective task any easier. We should listen to scientists because their positions come from data and expertise, and listen to teachers because their positions come from experience and expertise.
Let’s figure out how to do this together — for the sake of our children, our teachers and our communities.
David DiPietro is a teacher at Somerville High School. Benjamin Sommers is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.