The debate on reopening K-12 schools in the United States has focused on how to re-open, not whether. Given that the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravish our nation, there is no way to safely re-open until we have an effective vaccine and a national strategy for testing, contact tracing and immediate quarantines. The simplest solution is to extend summer vacation and reopen in Fall 2021.
Not reopening will save lives. That is the bottom line. Kids attending school will not spread the virus, bring it home and kill grandma. Those who have underlying conditions will not be placed at undue risk. My niece who teaches and is pregnant or my nephew who is just starting school and has diabetes will not be in jeopardy. Not reopening will keep many kids at the same pace of learning.
All school employees should continue to be paid. Cafeteria workers could continue to make food for kids who would otherwise not get a meal. Bus drivers could deliver those meals. Farmers stay in business.
School nurses and health counselors could deploy services online or through house calls, if that can be done safely.
Superintendents and teachers should engage in deep learning on how to build virtual models of education in case the pandemic persists for more than another year. Others could be given a paid sabbatical to pursue continued learning in their field.
Schools could become day care facilities with limited students per room and supervisors that practice and enforce social distancing. The janitors would still be needed to ensure the highest level of sanitation.
School engineers and construction workers could ensure that school repairs could be made during this year. It is time to recognize and fund schools as part of our national infrastructure. A more ambitious project would be to reimagine schools for the twenty-first century and build back better.
Schools that have figured out how to deliver virtual learning now should be free to move forward with those plans and help teach other districts that have not. Some schools may want to continue with reading lists and writing assignments. Students should be encouraged to do online learning on their own, and at their own pace. Students could pick up or refine language skills. Others could develop life skills that today are often neglected for test skills.
Self-directed learning may give some kids a leg up on others; that is already the case. Online learning will benefit those who can afford to do so, but that too is already the case. Delaying the structured in-person teaching, however, will move most students forward at the same time, and give the nation time to corral the coronavirus.
The biggest burden of closing K-12 for another year will be on the families, especially working moms who disproportionately shoulder the responsibilities for their children. Families and communities will need to come together to figure out how to manage during this unprecedented moment. Government can step in by funding childcare models and providing continued stimulus payments that enable families to live. Government should invest in ensuring all Americans have access to digital learning.
What we need now is to give ourselves permission to let go. We are so invested in the routine and structure that our schools provide. We are invested in ensuring that our children get the best education possible, and we do not want to delay their future. It is hard to imagine a different way forward. The current plague requires us to. One person dying every eighty seconds is a fire alarm we cannot ignore. What can be said about the human condition is that we are resilient. We rise to new challenges in thoughtful and creative ways. A gap year is one solution.