I’m afraid of COVID-19. So are you. And so is everyone else. Fear is the only rational response given the current pandemic. Yet fear can be paralyzing and polarizing because we are sometimes scared in different ways.
The problem is that we don’t often articulate the things about which we are afraid, so our fear comes out as anger—ALL CAPS SCREAMING ANGER—that risks fraying the social fabric of our lives.
Evidence suggests that COVID-19 is becoming endemic, a condition that will be present for years to come. If we want to survive this difficult situation, both physically and emotionally, it will behoove us to start any discussion about the coronavirus with an honest statement about what we fear most. And to recognize that our fear, whatever it may be, is not always shared equally by others.
Which gets us to the thorny problem of schools and universities.
What should we do for students in September?
Let’s start with some competing truths that I’ll call “A” and “B.”
A. Social Distancing in Schools
There is no practical way to maintain social distance at schools. I don’t know a single educator, K-12 or college, who believes kids will follow the rules consistently.
To even attempt social distancing at schools, a massive amount of funding will be necessary for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), extra classrooms, extra bus drivers, etc. Thus far that funding has not appeared.
If students report back to class, the virus will appear in most schools, as viruses normally do. Many kids will be fine. Some kids will be sick. A few kids will die. The same is true for adults who work in school buildings. It will be painful.
Though most kids will be okay with the virus, they could transmit it to parents or grandparents who will be harmed.
Some kids and many teachers have underlying health conditions that make the virus worse. For them, the thought of in-person school is terrifying.
Schools that have opened in some countries have seen clusters of new cases.
B. Quality of Online Instruction
Many kids learned almost nothing during online instruction, particularly high-needs kids, kids with learning disabilities and poor kids. There is zero evidence to suggest they will fare any better in September. Those kids will have numerous bad outcomes. Their parents know this and are scared.
Because of the above point, another year of mostly online instruction will increase the number of kids who drop out of school. Their parents know this and are scared.
Kids who drop out of school have a life expectancy that is nine years shorter than high school graduates. Likewise, they have higher rates of diabetes, asthma, stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, substance use, interactions with the legal system—all of which can be fatal.
For some kids, school is a healthier, safer place than home. During online instruction this spring, many kids struggled with anxiety, depression, hunger, substance use, child abuse, lack of physical activity, etc. Suicides increased among people of all ages.
Some parents will not be able to return to work if their young children are home during the school day. There will be cascading negative societal outcomes related to this consequence of online learning.
Some educators will lose their jobs if school is mostly online for the coming year(s). Taxpayers will be reticent to pay for support services and elective classes that can’t be delivered effectively from afar. Many colleges will collapse without students on-campus, as will the college town businesses dependent on those schools.
Schools that have opened in some countries have not seen a large spike in new cases.
If school is mostly online, there is no evidence that older kids will quarantine to the same extent as they did this spring. Many parents will be back at work, and adolescents—for the most part—stopped rigorously social distancing in late May. Keeping kids “at home” may not contain the virus in ways that we assume.
There is no guarantee that a vaccine will appear, or that it will have enough usage and efficacy to completely eradicate the virus. We will likely be having this same discussion next summer. Giving up in-person instruction and all the other benefits of school for several years has inherent risk both for kids and society.
If one’s primary fear(s) are based on the “A” truths, the obvious solution is to keep kids at home and have virtual classes. It’s hard to conceive that anyone could see the world differently.
If one’s primary fear(s) are based on the “B” truths, the obvious solution is to have kids on campus as much as possible. The ability to do that will vary region by region, and among age groups, but the goal should be in-person instruction.
Educators are not to blame for this conundrum, yet here we are. There are no easy answers, but this I know for certain: whatever solution we choose, some kids will be helped, and some kids will be harmed. Some families will be helped, and some families will be harmed. Some teachers will be helped, and some teachers will be harmed. In our polarized, all-or-nothing social media climate, that’s important to remember.
It is fully possible that people advocating for virtual instruction and people advocating for in-person instruction (like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the NY Times editors) both care about kids. So perhaps in any future discussions about COVID-19 and schools, we should start by saying what we fear most. And refrain from making judgments about those who see the issue through a different prism.
When we articulate our fear(s), people can feel empathy for us, even if they disagree with our position. And vice-versa. That empathy can eventually lead to the win-win solutions which we desperately need.
I am afraid that if we don’t find a way to thoughtfully express our fears and to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of others, the frayed societal bonds will be almost as deadly as the virus itself. And that’s what scares me most about COVID-19.
Rich Ognibene is the 2008 New York State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He teaches chemistry and physics at Fairport High School in Fairport, New York.