As local school districts consider their options for educating students this fall, they face treading an exceptionally narrow path between the education rock and the public-health hard place. The decisions they make will of course determine how well they’ll deliver on their customary charge of providing their students the best education possible that available resources allow. This fall, though, the health of not just their students, teachers and support staff, but their entire communities too, is in play.
There’s no question that students will be best served educationally if schools reopen. Area educators did an admirable job pivoting under duress to a fully remote learning environment this spring. But a recent report by The Sentinel’s Jack Rooney surveying administrators around the region highlighted limitations the schools encountered, ranging from greater learning gaps among students as some struggled in the remote environment, to the social and emotional toll on students from the more isolated setting, to such practical challenges as unreliable, unequal and inadequate Internet access.
Schools are taking steps this summer, through professional development and other means, to better address some of the shortcomings. As Jaffrey-Rindge district Superintendent Reuben Duncan summarized the spring experience, however, “we learned that remote instruction, no matter how well we implement it, cannot replace the face-to-face instruction that our staff provides.”
Conversely, there’s also little doubt that not reopening schools this fall is the surest way to aid the effort to control the spread of COVID-19. The nature of the school environment makes strict observance of social-distancing and other protocols extremely difficult to achieve as students are bused to and from school, pass through hallways, interact in the classroom as well as socially and, well, just be kids. And while it’s true the coronavirus does not, as yet, affect the general student-age population as seriously as older groups, reopening schools will surely increase the risk of transmission to teachers and staff and, ultimately, the community as a whole.
A difficult balancing act, indeed. Schools have been working diligently to develop plans to best address the competing educational and public-health imperatives, quite sensibly anticipating being completely open, fully remote, or something in between. Most in the area haven’t yet issued detailed plans, but a draft plan released for stakeholder comment by SAU 29 shows an impressive range of planning for the various scenarios, envisioning in a fully or partly reopened setting, steps to stagger student arrival and dismissal times, maximize desk spacing in classroom, enhance sanitizing procedures and urge hallways be made one-way. A final plan is expected to be released soon, but Superintendent Robert Malay emphasized that it will be up to individual schools to make final decisions on the plan’s options and scenarios.
Meanwhile, the state has also pushed much of the decision-making responsibility onto the individual school districts. On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu released the Department of Education’s guidance, making it clear that the state was emphasizing providing flexibility to local school districts to craft their own reopening plans. In particular, the governor’s approach is not to impose requirements, such as mandating face masks or requiring spacing of students on buses, that are in his view so rigid they won’t be followed.
Even if that may have a degree of practicality to it, for schools to adequately implement many of the recommendations that are critical from a public-health standpoint, the districts will need financial support. Sununu has maintained that there is funding to back up the recommendations, such as federal CARES Act money for purchases of personal protective equipment and to support disinfecting protocols.
Yet to assure schools can provide their best educational experience will surely require additional support if they are to do so safely. Many facilities may require redesigning to achieve proper social distancing, ventilating systems and other infrastructure may need upgrading, and additional staffing seems likely if school days need to be extended to accommodate staggered attendance schedules and to provide additional substitute teaching coverage for medical absence, to name at least some likely financial pressure points. And, of course, technology and broadband investment is critical to adequately support any component of remote learning.
At the same time the governor is indicating additional funding is unlikely, President Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have adopted a stick-and-no-carrot approach, insisting the nation’s schools fully reopen or potentially lose funding. While most governors, including Sununu, seem willing to go their own way, the administration certainly seems uninterested in financially supporting the additional costs of a safe reopening.
Without additional state or federal support, public-health concerns likely tip the scales toward a partially remote reopening. That would be a shame, for it will be forcing educators to make the difficult decision that school kids in the pandemic era will receive a lesser education than those who preceded or follow them.