Reopening schools in the fall with virtual learning may be the right choice to protect public health, but it’s far from a perfect approach.
It’s good that most school officials, teachers and parents recognize this. It should motivate them to think beyond the first day of classes to the larger problem of how to keep children — particularly those with special needs and other at-risk students — from falling behind.
This week saw school boards in several Hampton Roads districts move toward online learning to start the school year. In some communities, these were wide-ranging discussions of the options available which invited public input and hashed through some of the obstacles.
Norfolk’s board voted Wednesday to begin the year with online instruction, a period that will last at least nine weeks. Virginia Beach is likely to follow suit, with guidelines to determine when it’s safe to welcome students back to their classrooms.
Teachers’ groups are united in their opposition to in-person instruction to start the year. Data suggests that young children are less prone to infection and less likely to experience severe sickness or death if they contract it.
That’s not the case for teachers, who would be asked to shoulder additional risk by returning to work. On Monday, the commonwealth’s largest insurer of school districts told an online panel that teachers might not be eligible for claims under worker’s compensation for COVID-19 infections, which will likely deepen teachers’ concerns.
School support staff and administrators would also see a higher likelihood of infection. Health officials also worry that students could act as carriers, bringing the disease home with them at the end of the school day.
Reducing that danger is directly tied to our ability to curb the spread of the disease, which has been a national catastrophe so far. The United States passed 4 million coronavirus cases last week. More than 150,000 people have died. The virus is surging in dozens of states, months after it arrived on these shores and long after other countries effectively suppressed it.
In Virginia, a period of remarkable success has come undone in recent weeks. What was once a promising trend has turned ominous as the percentage of positive tests has risen, particularly in Hampton Roads.
It’s probable, but not certain, a return to school would accelerate those trends and add to the more than 80,000 cases and 2,000 deaths Virginia has already recorded from this infuriating disease.
But it’s also probable that keeping children away from school will result in deeply problematic outcomes.
Students with special needs or those who need additional or specialized instruction will be set adrift. Children who come from low-income families or who don’t have ready or reliable internet access will also fall further behind.
Add to that the fact that online instruction is, in many cases, a poor substitute for in-person classroom learning. It’s a challenge — for teachers and students alike — to replicate the experience of robust class discussion without being face to face.
Yes, there’s a financial component to all this as well. Many parents struggled to juggle work duties with home schooling when both abruptly changed in the spring. They reasonably worry both with suffer the longer schools remain closed.
That’s why the Norfolk and Virginia Beach approach seems prudent: Begin the year with online instruction but continue to monitor data with an eye to returning students to schools as soon as possible. It nods to reality while leaving room for hope.
In the meantime, school districts should be preparing robust outreach to at-risk students and those needing additional attention and specialized instruction. The longer this goes, the further these students may fall behind — and we should fight that with every tool available.
There is no perfect solution to this. But it’s essential those children at greatest risk receive the full measure of our efforts to ensure they aren’t put at a disadvantage from which they cannot recover.
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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