Lots of questions have been raised in the often contentious discussion over if, when and how to reopen schools in the fall.
But the question conspicuously absent from many of these debates is perhaps the most fundamental: What is the goal of public education?
Schools are charged with instructing our children in academics — reading, writing, arithmetic, science — yes, but they also play an integral, if not always tangible, role in the physical, emotional and moral development of children.
Schools are where many children learn to play, to compromise, to follow directions, to win (and lose) graciously, to face adversity, to accept responsibility and to become well-rounded individuals. They are profoundly important to many children’s growth.
As many have pointed out, schools also serve practical purposes in the lives of many children, providing meals for kids who need them, child and aftercare in single-parent households or those where both parents work, and a safe environment for at-risk youth.
It’s valid to question whether all these tasks should fall to schools. But here we are, and for a large number of children and parents in America, this is what schools are expected to do.
It’s why the notion of keeping millions of kids at home — isolated, perhaps with no adults present, sitting before glowing screens instead of among teachers and peers, in home environments not always conducive to learning, let alone safe — should be unthinkable.
This is especially true knowing that the haphazard virtual learning of this past spring most deeply impacted low-income and minority students.
As my progressive teacher friend recently said, “Just weeks ago, the national conversation was all about Black lives. Now, none of my colleagues want to return to school.” What about the education of Black students? Shouldn’t that matter, too?
This fact alone should compel us all to pursue a solution that ensures schools are open this fall; there are good reasons to believe that it is possible to do this safely.
While the science continues to evolve, there is a growing body of evidence that children are not only less severely impacted by the virus, but appear to spread it less readily to both adults and other children.
While this research isn’t conclusive, it does suggest that young kids in particular are less of a danger to adults than we once thought, and should provide some relief to teachers concerned about classrooms full of tiny vectors.
Older students are a different matter. But while transmissibility appears to increase with age, so does responsibility and the ability to follow directions and abide by rules, like physical distancing.
If masks are as effective as emerging evidence and experience suggests they are, strict mask policies for teachers, staff and middle and high school age students should significantly reduce spread, even when compliance isn’t perfect.
The experiences of other countries will also be informative, since many nations reopened schools as early as May.
While outbreaks are inevitable, schools, students and parents (and their employers) need to be as flexible as possible, but always have an eye toward keeping school doors open.
There are numerous thoughtful blueprints for reopening schools that balance the unique needs of teachers (particularly those at higher risk) with the primary goal of meeting the holistic needs of students.
School reopening may be messy, but its failure is far from inevitable. Indeed, it seems possible that this pandemic will give rise to greater support for public education, financially and otherwise.
It’s also possible that our society moves toward an environment where the family — be it nuclear, extended or created — is the epicenter of learning and personal formation. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
But for the here and now, our schools play a profound role in the lives of our youth. Keeping them closed should not be an option.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The BDN publishes opinions from partner news services to bring a wider variety of perspectives to readers.