On June 25, Gov. Ned Lamont introduced the Framework for Connecticut Schools during the 2020-2021 school year, which calls for the full reopening of all Connecticut schools this fall. The first two guiding principles of this plan are “Safeguarding the health and safety of students and staff,”and “Allowing all students the opportunity to return into the classrooms full time starting in the fall.” These goals are mutually exclusive.
In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reopening schools as usual would endanger the lives of all students, teachers, staff, parents, and communities in Connecticut. While keeping schools closed and continuing virtual learning would present many challenges, these challenges can be addressed without sacrificing public health. The state of Connecticut, however, does not seem to be willing to tackle these challenges head-on and instead wants to throw in the towel and take practically no action to stem the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
To the authors’ credit, the plan’s recommendations reflect the COVID-19 situation in mid-June before the recent explosions of COVID-19 cases in Florida, Arizona, Texas, and elsewhere. These clearly demonstrated the consequences of relaxing social distancing measures too early. Although community transmission of the virus has declined drastically in most parts of Connecticut, letting our guard down will cause it come roaring back. The fact that the governor and Department of Education have now had several weeks to observe this and have still not changed their recommendations for the fall is evidence of reckless irresponsibility.
So what keeps them clinging to their fantasy of a safe fall reopening? Some states, such as Massachusetts, have justified their plans to reopen by citing evidence that COVID-19 is not frequently transmitted in schools. This is a case of absence of evidence not equaling evidence of absence. The majority of schools closed before widespread community transmission was occurring, so there were few opportunities for school-based outbreaks to occur.
Although children rarely become seriously ill or die from COVID19, they can still be infected and transmit the virus to others <sup>1</sup>. And children are not the only ones present in schools; as many as 43% of Connecticut teachers are at high risk of severe COVID-19 illness <sup>2</sup>.
Schools are ideal environments for the virus to spread; children are packed into overcrowded classrooms for hours at a time, often in buildings with poor ventilation. It is merely a question when, not if, school-based outbreaks would spread to surrounding communities. Statistical platitudes about low fatality rates in children will mean little to the families of those few students who do die, and even less to the families of the thousands of teachers, administrators, staff, and community members from more vulnerable populations whose lives will be sacrificed.
Connecticut’s plan mentions several measures to decrease the spread of COVID-19, such as cohorting, mask-wearing, physical spacing, and frequent hand-washing. Anyone who has interacted with a child knows these plans are laughable. Expecting children to wear masks correctly and keep apart from each other all day is unrealistic; even for teenagers and adults this is a tall order.
The guidelines do not mention any specific plans for ensuring social distancing in restrooms, during recess, or on buses, which they recommend operate at full capacity under some circumstances. Furthermore, these requirements border on cruelty to students and remove many of the essential elements of school – close interaction among peers, one-on-one attention by teachers, and group work – that advocates claim as reasons schools should be re-opened.
Although the dangers of reopening are clear, it is important to acknowledge the challenges of continuing virtual learning. Parents are struggling with assisting their children with schoolwork while simultaneously working from home and tending to household responsibilities. If the decision to continue online instruction were made early, schools could dedicate their full attention to developing plans that provide students with more structure and one-on-one attention that would ease the burden on parents. Additionally, evidence shows that well-designed online learning programs can produce equivalent learning outcomes to traditional school. While virtual learning is not ideal for student learning, it is preferable to the thousands of deaths that would occur otherwise.
In addition to education, schools serve as childcare for working parents. While many parents can still work from home, others will have to work in-person and would have to find childcare elsewhere. However, Connecticut’s plan is the worst possible solution to this problem. Reopening schools would destroy any chance for families to maintain a social ‘bubble.’ Elderly family and friends who are often important sources of childcare outside of school hours would be unable to safety continue because of the danger of students bringing home the virus.
Home-based childcare facilities would be a better option than schools; they are small, completely self-contained, and still held to strict standards of health and hygiene. In March, Gov. Lamont issued an order that provided flexibility for childcare providers to encourage an increase in childcare capacity; these provisions should be extended and funding should be made available to support providers and allow families in need to afford home-based childcare.
Beyond these logistical problems, a troubling concern is that continuing virtual learning might widen existing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. This should be taken very seriously, as school segregation and educational inequity are already huge problems in Connecticut.
The COVID-19 pandemic and switch to virtual learning are not the root cause of these achievement gaps; they are merely exposing and highlighting longstanding injustices which should be addressed head-on through policies that promote racial justice and economic equality in society at large. Simply returning to the old status quo is not a solution to systemic racism or poverty. Stop gap measures such as deploying mobile WiFi hotspots, distributing laptops and tablets, and providing free meal pick-ups for children should be continued and expanded; these are not long-term solutions to social inequities, but neither is simply reopening schools.
It is also important to keep in mind that the infection and fatality rates of COVID-19 are particularly high in Black and Latino communities; attempting to resolve racial inequities in education with measures that will exacerbate racial inequities in health is severely misguided at best.
Another serious issue with virtual learning is the provision of special education services. Services such as physical therapy and counseling are difficult to deliver virtually and students with disabilities and their families are often struggling. However, as with childcare, a full reopening for all students is not a solution.
Many students with disabilities have complex medical conditions or health needs that make them particularly vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness. Reopening schools at full capacity would create an unsafe environment for these students, and would likely force them to continue virtual learning anyway. If the majority of students were kept at home, schools could allow small numbers of students with specific in-person service needs to receive them in schools.
The Connecticut Department of Education and Gov. Lamont have neglected their duties to the people of Connecticut by failing to create a reasonable and safe plan for our schools this fall. If they won’t step up and protect our communities, it is up to teachers and parents to take action. Teachers’ unions around the country are already organizing collective action to demand explicit measures to ensure teacher safety, adequate staffing, and fair compensation; Connecticut’s teachers should follow suit.
Parents should refuse to send their children back to school and should demand better and safer solutions for instruction and childcare. Reopening schools this fall would be a betrayal of the very foundations of education that we claim to espouse. If we are trying to teach students to make informed, ethical decisions based on science and evidence, but then ignore that ourselves in favor of doing what is convenient, what we are really teaching is that actions don’t matter as long as you claim to have good intentions.
Is that lesson worth sacrificing thousands of lives for?
Paula Matzke is a teacher candidate at Central Connecticut State University.