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Some thoughts on reopening schools, with more questions than answers

Are we trying to control a situation over which we have little control?

There is a debate raging these days about reopening schools on schedule during a time when COVID-19 infections are surging. There are those who say, absolutely no, we cannot reopen schools, because we cannot risk spreading the virus and endangering, or at worst, killing, students’ and teachers’ lives. But nothing is ever risk-free. A kid could get killed by a car on their walk to school; had that kid stayed at home, obviously that wouldn’t have happened. We deem education important enough to take those risks. As a teacher, I ask myself these questions:

  1. Am I willing to endanger my own health by going into the classroom?

  2. Am I willing to endanger my family’s health by contracting something and spreading it to them?

  3. Am I willing to endanger the health of the students’ families?

I also have to ask myself, what is the benefit of teaching in the classroom? We all know that online learning is not ideal for anybody. We know that if kids have to stay home, the learning gap will widen further. Students from low-income families, many of whom are ethnic minorities, will suffer more than affluent families. People of greater economic means can better afford to stay home with their children, while others have to work.

Then I have to remind myself that the reality of the physical classroom will not be as it was. I will essentially have to stand in front of the class and lecture. I won’t be able to walk around the room and check on students’ work. My ability to help them will be severely restricted. If a kid has to miss class for health reasons, they are going to get woefully behind. So in that case, is online learning preferable? Maybe so, provided that we can guarantee that every student has internet access.

One thing I see being discussed very little is why we are locked into our August - June 8:00ish to 3:00ish schedule. America has observed this long summer break for decades, but it has contributed to the learning gap, and is unfair to the poor. It’s also one reason the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in knowledge - they have a completely different approach to the calendar, unburdened by athletic schedules and summer camps. Can we keep kids longer through the day, the way my wife Sujin was educated in South Korea? This time seems to me ideal to break free of those cultural shackles. If it’s not safe to open in August, why are we forced into that schedule? Can we postpone opening and have school through the summer of 2021, with more frequent shorter breaks, and then keep that going? As a Catholic choir director who is trying to strengthen ties to the parish, I’d love if school were in session during Holy Week, the Easter Octave, and Pentecost. Can we give students reading assignments in August with which to follow up in discussion when class resumes?

This crisis is forcing all of us to be creative, to rethink old ways of doing things, and to adjust. The virus is in charge; we are not. It’s horrible - people are dying and developing serious health problems. But good can emerge from horrible situations, and school reform could be one of those. As a private school unburdened by many restrictions, I frankly think we should go it alone, if that’s what it takes. We may end up being ahead.

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