Opinion | Schools can, and should, reopen now

Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 3:23pm


Graphic by Cara Jheng

Despite the few fond memories of my time at high school, I am certain that I would have preferred my in-person experience to that of any K-12 student currently attending class virtually. Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, a significant proportion of schools still remain closed, offering instruction solely via a computer screen. 

President Joe Biden entered office with an ambitious reopening plan, pledging to return K-12 students to classrooms within his first 100 days. Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidelines for reopening, announced last Friday, it is looking like that plan is not only ambitious but unlikely. 

With that being said, even if Biden’s original threshold back in December was over-aggressive, opening schools is possible. And, for the sake of all of the students who have dysfunctional or abusive households, depend on food from their school, do not have strong internet connections or are suffering through Zoom-administered physics lessons, it should be treated as a priority. 

According to the CDC’s report, elementary schools are pretty much in the clear to go back to the classroom. As long as proper procedures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, are followed, they can operate regardless of the community transmission rate. Doing that is not feasible for every school, depending on the potential size and infrastructure limitations, but for many, it can be done. Middle schools and high schools are also permitted to operate, except if transmission rates in the district reach the highest level — defined by either a 10% or greater positive community test rate or 100 or more cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period. 

The main barrier to schools reopening countrywide is not necessarily the logistics of adhering to safety regulations, even if that is difficult to do in some districts. One of the most prominent oppositions is from teachers’ unions and staff within the buildings, many of whom do not believe that schools can be reopened in a safe manner.

Teacher unions have held firm that a strict set of demands must be put in place before the process of reopening schools can begin. But even they are beginning to lay down their guard following this new report from the CDC, with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, responding with a positive review: “Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence. … For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.” 

For some, vaccinations have been at the heart of that strict set of demands — teachers in Minnesota have rallied and nurses, educators and parents plan to hold daily press conferences to voice their concerns about a rushed reopening.

While the CDC agrees with unions that teachers should be among the top of the priority hierarchy, vaccinations are not a prerequisite for students nor staff under these new guidelines. New York City’s success in regard to teacher safety has been evidence for that.

Still, one prominent concern remains for others: ventilation. Many schools are old and lack proper ventilation systems, which in the context of COVID-19 could present a significant risk for its occupants. Experts have criticized the CDC’s report on this point, noting that a less aggressive emphasis should be placed on sanitizing surfaces around school buildings and more should be placed on ensuring adequate ventilation. After all, this is an airborne disease. 

Biden and the House Democrats are working on a solution to various infrastructure restraints. Their proposed COVID-19 relief bill includes $129 billion in education relief funding that, in theory, could address improper ventilation in applicable districts. Of course, infrastructure like that will take some time to implement, but once it is, a true in-person learning experience could be in sight. 

The reality is reopening will not be perfectly risk-free. But that does not mean it is extraordinarily risky. And the values of in-person education need to be weighed against these risks.  

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stated this month, “The value of in-person learning for our kids is immeasurable.” She is spot on. 

Virtual schooling removes nearly all of the social aspects of school, stripping learning down to the cut-and-dried: teaching and learning. There is only so much that teachers can do to foster participation and students certainly do not have the same ability to chat or check-in with their peers as they do in person. 

Racial inequities, which were already prominent within our school systems prior to the pandemic, are now exacerbated by online or hybrid learning. Nearly 30% of all K-12 public school students in the United States do not have proper access to the internet in their homes. This, mixed with parents who are often already stretched thin with their own jobs and the loud environments that are common within multiple-family homes, makes for a horrendous learning environment for a large proportion of American students.

The virus’s danger must be acknowledged. But the CDC has already considered the risks, and within the context of schooling, the danger can be heavily mitigated in several ways. 

We should not be abandoning the concept of in-person schooling because it may require some extra work to reopen. Instead, go full steam ahead. The consequences of being stuck at home for students are only going to multiply if we don’t. 

John Tumpowsky can be reached at jgtump@umich.edu.

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