Why Our Children Need Schools To Open

Thu, 08/20/2020 - 3:18pm

Much of the discussion about Covid19 has centered around the opening (or closure, as it were) of public spaces – our streets, our sidewalks, our parks and playgrounds. As governments weigh their choices, their primary considerations are public health and hospital capacity, and the rights of people to move about freely in their daily pursuits.

As we inch closer to fall, the energy of the debate is focusing on schools. Will they reopen, and when? How will classes look and feel? Will they be online or in person? Public schools are public infrastructure. However the service they offer, organized education & learning, is a special public service offered to young people only at a certain time in their lives.

Education is not just an essential service. It is the most essential service to our kids, because it helps to shape them into the adults they will become. Much of this shaping comes from the daily interactions that happen in person. These experiences can be simulated via telepresence, but they cannot be replicated without in- person experiences. The Brookings Institution highlighted this problem in a recent article on school openings, pointing out that our youngest children have lost not only academic but social readiness as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Home instruction can help prevent a slide in academic readiness. Some parents have the capacity in terms of time and interest in home schooling, however many do not. This leaves a wide gap between those parents capable of providing rich in-home instruction, and those who cannot.

Particularly vulnerable groups are low income and minority children, and children living with disabilities. Both Lancet Health and the Centers for Disease Control have warned that “…the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities. These students are far less likely to have access to private instruction and care and far more likely to rely on key school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to meet basic developmental needs.” In contrast, the wealthiest families that can afford the extracurricular services that can help close the gap, things like tutoring, group study, summer programs and private instruction.

It’s important to remember the very reason public schools were created, to provide a standardized general education for those not wealthy enough to educate their children to a high standard. That is precisely why the public school system exists.

There are innumerable follow-on benefits from this system of in-person education. Improved nutrition, counseling, and better social skills benefit the individual student. Improved civic participation, higher literacy, and lower income inequality are societal benefits, and the foundation of this country’s liberal democracy.

The case for in person education is clear. But how to proceed? We will find the answer, as we always do, in innovation, creativity, and flexibility. When classes resume, we need to have special options for children who have health vulnerabilities, or whom have an immediate family member with health vulnerabilities. Anyone who does not want their child to attend in person should be able to opt out. While telepresence may be one tool for these students, we could go further and offer small group instruction, or one on one tutoring.

Homeschooling and independent schools will be more important than ever, and new models such as schooling pods and combined classrooms should be embraced to help bridge the achievement gap.

For administrators, teachers, and parents, the prospects may seem daunting. Trying times like these are when this country and our communities rise to their very best. Renewed energy, new ideas, additional funding, and hard work will allow us to uphold our commitment to of equal public education.

Michael Mullins is a Candidate for House District 93, Rockland and Owl’s Head