Schools Are Essential, So Let's Reopen the Right Way This Fall

Jul 7, 2020 12:41:00 PM


This afternoon, President Donald Trump said, “We want to get our schools open. We want to get them open, quickly, beautifully in the fall.” I agree. We need children to go back to school in the fall. And I believe schools can do this so students and teachers stay out of harm’s way as much as possible.

But [pullquote]our federal and state governments and our teachers unions are keeping their heads in the sand about the two biggest obstacles to overcome[/pullquote]: 

  • The fiscal crisis schools are facing.
  • The increasing acceptance of virtual learning as a way to avoid making painful but necessary investments in schools.

We’re already seeing the signs. Thanks to the pandemic closures, states aren’t bringing in revenue. I’m hearing about teacher layoffs. I get why that’s happening, but we have to find somewhere else to cut budgets. 

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is in short supply in hospitals, but slowly we’re getting more of it to the front lines and we’re finding a way to keep essential workers in medicine safe. [pullquote position="right"]Teachers will need PPE, too. We have to keep them safe.[/pullquote] And, to be sure, educators have been screaming about reducing class size for years. Now, maybe we’re finally going to do it.

Child care centers for essential workers ran through the pandemic. Many got very creative about how to reduce the chances of infection while helping very young children have a positive experience—and while learning new distancing procedures and without fussing over masks. Where I live, in Montgomery County, Maryland, our county council stepped up and provided $10 million in emergency grants to help daycares stay open despite the economic impact of the pandemic.

What could the parallel be for K-12 schools? It could mean mass hiring in order to reduce teachers’ exposure to children. It will certainly mean hiring more custodial workers so they are constantly cleaning classrooms. This kind of change will demand big bucks for schools in the stimulus package now under discussion in Congress.

That could also mean allowing families to choose whether to send their children to a school building or continue remote learning. Districts from New York City to Dayton, Ohio are already starting to do this. 

But we can’t look at remote learning as the excuse not to provide the true quality of health and safety precautions needed for in-person school. We will need a subset of teachers solely dedicated to remote learning and twice as many leading in-person classrooms. 

Remote Learning Is Not a Panacea

As a parent, I’m concerned that there’s too much reliance on virtual learning to get us through this pandemic. Remote learning was one thing when we thought it would only last a few weeks. But after we went at it for months, in my house, I can tell you it didn’t work well.

It was tough enough for my middle-school son and, for my daughter in kindergarten, it was not even developmentally appropriate. And, when I look at how many kids we lost during remote learning last spring, I know I’m not alone. 

As working parents all over the country know, it’s overwhelming to work from home and also make sure our kids are getting their lessons. For example, my son required a lot of oversight in regular school. This was compounded online. I had to get off Zoom calls and tell him to get off YouTube. 

Fortunately, I had a good relationship with my son’s teachers and they let me know when he hadn’t turned in assignments. But what about next year? If we listen to the major teachers’ unions, who so far want to stay remote, he and I won’t be able to meet his teachers in the coming year. He and I can’t build that kind of relationship through a screen.

The unions will argue, “we can do this virtually,” when I know they argued the exact opposite when it was convenient for them—when they wanted to close down fully online charter schools. 

And, if a family like mine had it rough with remote learning, what about essential workers? If someone is an essential worker and a single parent, chances are good their children learned virtually nothing the last quarter of last school year. Who is going to say that children of essential workers don’t get the option to go to school? 

[pullquote]We need an education solution that isn’t just kids on Zoom calls and Google Classroom.[/pullquote]

At the same time, we can’t just open school back up the way we opened up bars. We need safe, socially-distanced school for as many children as possible. That will take money, and it will also take creativity on the part of state and district leaders.

If child care centers for essential workers could figure it out, K-12 schools can, too. So, if you are a district leader who hasn’t said boo about what happens next year yet, stop hiding and burying your heads in the sand. Figure it out. 

Everyone needs to get a lot more creative here: State leaders, district leaders, teachers union leaders, principals, teachers, and yes, us parents, too.

Parents, We Won’t Get The Schooling We Want for Our Kids Next Year Without a Fight

So far, from where I stand, it seems parents have been passively accepting that school can be online. I want to push back on that. If hospitals and grocery stores are essential places we can’t shut down and must sanitize, why aren’t schools? I haven’t seen people say, “school is essential.” But it is.

Parents, we need to be putting pressure on local governments to declare schools essential and do whatever it takes to make them the safest, most sanitary environments possible, so they can re-open and help our kids learn. We need to stop putting children last while claiming to put them first.

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is the former National Director of Activism at brightbeam, the parent organization of Education Post. She is the co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! and most recently served as the National Field Organizer at Dignity in Schools Campaign. Zakiya came to organizing, advocacy, and policy work organically as a parent pushing back on harmful school discipline policies that disproportionately impact Black students and their families. Zakiya's organizing and advocacy acumen has led to significant policy changes at the local and state level in the state of Ohio. Since then, Zakiya has worked in communities all across the country sharing tools, strategies, and skills with Black parents to shift education policy and practice. Zakiya has been named to the inaugural #Power50 leadership fellowship for women of color with Community Change and the Community Activist Fellowship with Wayfinder Foundation. Zakiya is a preeminent thought leader in racial and education justice and has received numerous awards. In her free time, Zakiya enjoys traveling and spending time with her husband and two children.

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