Parents are terrified and they should be.  COVID-19 is extremely infectious.

It’s a tough time for parents and school districts.  They are forced to make decisions they don’t want to make.

With no federal guidelines to follow, each school district must wrestle with how best to accommodate all students in a safe environment.  Options include returning to virtual learning started in the spring, the usual in-class instruction or some combination of the two. 

This is not the first time our country has faced a pandemic of this nature.  In the United States about 675,000 people died from the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. We can learn from the experiences of a hundred years ago.

In 1918 schools invested in nurses.  Students were under the constant observation of qualified persons who gave students a degree of safety.  Nurses had the opportunity to educate both the children and their parents by providing health information. Today, however, because they have been cut from school budgets over the years, many school districts across Wisconsin are without regular access to a nurse.

During the 1918 pandemic identified “planning that brings public health, education officials, and political leaders together” as the key to successful responses. 

In Los Angeles, the mayor, health commissioner, police chief and school superintendent collaborated to monitor infection rates, provide teachers additional training, and created and delivered homework to 90,000 students.  Such cooperation also helped schools as they reopened.

Unfortunately, due to our political divide, we don’t have the cooperation necessary to safely open our schools.  President Trump, who should be leading this effort, dismissed the first set of guidelines set forth by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), where the nation’s foremost health experts are employed.  He touted that they were “too tough and too expensive”.

So, now our children are a part of a national experiment.  Other countries have tried opening schools with disastrous results.  Israel opened schools when they had a low infection rate but they had to close them again when they saw a spike in infections.

Schools in Victoria, Australia have learned that plans can disappear quickly when the unpredictability of the virus comes into play.  They found it can be really complicated due to the many vulnerable kids, so many with disabilities, so many homeless.

In one scenario that occurred in Victoria, a student tested positive for coronavirus six days after in-person schooling opened.  All face to face learning had to be suspended while the school was cleaned and contact tracing was conducted. No timeline was given to parents or students about how long that tracing would take.  This caused them to wait for day-to-day updates on whether school would resume the next day.

President Trump keeps saying he wants schools to open in-person five days a week.  Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who should be looking out for the well-being of all school age children, agrees with him. They even go so far as to say that federal funding should be withheld for noncompliance.

70% of parents don’t want schools to open up as usual.  But the Trump/DeVos plan has no regard to how physical distancing would work in schools that are already crowded.  It has no regard for who will pay for PPE’s (Personal Protective Equipment), cleaning supplies, extra busses, or additional school supplies.  It has no regard for the health and safety of educators, students, their parents, caregivers, or grandparents.

In a study which graded the opening of schools during COVID-19 in four countries, only Uruguay got an “A”.  They reopened slowly in stages while schools and the surrounding communities had strict mask wearing and social distancing.

Kids do not appear to get particularly ill from the coronavirus, but less is known about how easily they spread it to adults. Although there is no conclusive evidence that young children transmit COVID, a South Korea study found that children 10-19 can transmit COVID at the same rate as adults. Bringing students back is bound to produce more infections, especially among teachers and staff.

Even with the distribution to school districts of 2 million cloth face masks and more than 4.200 infrared thermometers announced by Governor Evers, schools have so many more needs. 

When schools had to go to virtual classrooms last spring, it was evident where high speed internet access was not available in many areas of Wisconsin.  It is crucial that all students have broadband access.  The newly formed Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access is a step forward to make sure every residence, business, and institution in the state has affordable access to broadband.

While we are worrying about preventing the spread of COVID-19, we must also consider the social and emotional effects that a hybrid or in-person structure will have on students and educators. Going back to school has the potential to cause educational trauma for students, teachers, and staff members. Getting sick, watching others get sick, and/or bringing COVID-19 back home to their families and communities will cause intense pain and suffering. 

Leaders should not be making back-to-school decisions as a way to please politicians and cave to social pressure.  We should not rush into having in-person school this fall.   By also listening to our educators, staff members, and students, plans can be developed which are best for all involved.

No parent should have to make the tough decision between their child’s health and safety, and their family’s economic stability.  Perhaps starting the school year with virtual learning and then easing into in-person education is the answer.

Our op-ed which appeared in the Shawano Leader

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