If opening schools is so important, why are we skimping on protections that curb COVID?
Our country’s leadership is finally recognizing what we’ve all learned over the pandemic: Schools are essential. President Joe Biden’s ambition to reopen schools within his first 100 days acknowledges the instrumental role of schools as critical not only to child well-being and development but also to the stability of the country’s workforce and economy.
Yet the recent assertion by the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that vaccines may not be necessary to return students to classrooms, has added fresh fuel to a grinding debate centered on the minimal conditions for achieving this goal.
Here’s what we have learned as a teacher, public health worker, and parents of young children in Vermont: Reopening schools requires abandoning a mindset of scarcity that has long dominated our approach to both the pandemic and education. Instead of rationalizing bare-minimum policies, we should ask the question: How can we marshal all of our country’s resources to support educators entrusted with carrying out this important work?
We closed bars to keep schools safe
Vermont reopened its schools in September amid the country’s lowest COVID-19 case counts and calls from school leaders for communities to redouble efforts to adhere to public health guidance. When the state saw an uptick of cases in late fall, state leaders rapidly imposed restrictions on bars, social gatherings, and even masked walks with a friend.
Many in Vermont, as well as some national observers, wondered at the time why Vermont was taking drastic mitigation actions in many sectors but not closing down schools — but that was exactly the point. Vermont was using all of its public health resources to keep schools open and safe. Maintaining an on-campus experience for K-12 students was one of three top tier priorities driving state leaders as they sought to avert a winter surge in early November.
Vermont’s stabilizing case counts amid soaring national numbers hold a key lesson: Making in-person education the goal of a public health response doesn’t threaten community health, as many across the country fear — but it may be the best tool for sustaining community action to protect it. Communities value schools and are willing to sacrifice social plans and holiday travel to maintain in-person education.
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And yet, decisions around the country continue to betray the national mission to restart in-person education by undermining both public health and quality education. In Wisconsin, where there are over 1,000 new cases a day, state leaders pushed schools to reopen — in some cases, students are going without proper desks in order to maintain a minimum of distance in the classroom. In North Dakota, while educators wait to be vaccinated, the statewide mask mandate has been dropped. And in New Mexico, the state has pivoted from strict restrictions and remote learning to incentivizing reopening through the promise of youth sports.
Focusing on schools as essential
Even in Vermont, we have seen a mindset of public health scarcity creep into the state’s approach. The state recently announced its ambitions to further expand in-person education as it relaxed restrictions on indoor sports and abruptly abandoned plans to vaccinate the state’s essential workforce. Educators across the nation struggle to reconcile their essential role with public health measures that compromise their work and their safety.
We must stop debating policies that displace risk and burden onto school staff and instead align all our public health responses to support schools to open not only safely but in an environment that honors the work of educators and fosters learning and connection. As an immediate priority, leaders can and should restrict other activities to decrease community transmission. Secondly, states should accelerate plans to vaccinate school staff. Thirdly, leaders must ensure that schools have resources to implement adequate mitigation strategies. Finally, the country should dedicate resources to meet other needs, including increased staffing and operational costs. Finally, the public health and education communities must see their mission as a shared one and partner support this process.
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So, as we strive to achieve the goal of reopening our nation’s schools, let’s shift our focus. Let’s begin with the recognition that schools are the cornerstone of our society and invest all our resources in reopening them. Widespread vaccination will bring an end to the restrictions on our classrooms. However, our efforts to reopen them should be a blueprint for how we reimagine our commitment to support education in the future.
Bibba Kahn (@BibbaKahn) teaches middle school world language in Montpelier, and is the 2020 Vermont Teacher of the Year. Anne N. Sosin (@asosin) is the program director at Dartmouth’s Center for Global Health Equity.