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Est. April 5, 2002
Mar 25, 2021 - Issue 858
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Reopening schools is an ongoing, contentious issue among parents, elected officials, and school communities. It has teachers threatening to not show up at school unless they receive vaccinations for COVID-19, the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), appropriate ventilation, and spacing alterations for their classrooms.

These issues are becoming less volatile as mayors, school districts, and politicians agree to these demands. But a closer analysis of this controversy reveals that the primary divide is along the lines of class and race. Middle-class parents and their political representatives are the primary proponents of reopening initiatives.

When the proposition is presented to the broader public, however, it is done in the name of poor parents of color and claims that their children will be the greatest beneficiaries of a return to in-person instruction since they are trailing their middle-class counterparts academically. Almost never mentioned is the fact that this academic disparity persists when both groups are in school and has been the case for generations.

The print and broadcast media reiterate this message with editorials, Op-Ed columns, letters-to-the-editor, and selected profiles of advocates for a prompt return to in-person education. In order to get a handle on this matter, we examine key components of the proposals for a wholesale return to school for daily and/or several times weekly in-person teaching.

Mask Wearing and PPE: It is assumed that all returning students will wear masks and that masks will be widely available. This is not entirely true since teachers have refused to return to school physically based on their safety concerns, including the lack of masks and other PPE (face shields, disinfectant, adequate ventilation systems, etc.) for themselves and their students. Schools serving the poorest students are especially deficient in supplies of these products.

Social Distancing: The spacing required to prevent transmission is currently in dispute. Originally, 6-feet was the scientifically determined distance for everyone. But a March 22, 2021, Wall Street Journal Op-Ed stated, “The old standard of 6 feet has been replaced by a 3-foot minimum, which will make it much more feasible for many school districts to reopen for full-time instruction in person.”

This revision in social distancing only applies to schools and not to the broader society and can only be implemented when the coronavirus infections are low and when schools are taking other measures. The initial 6-feet distancing mandate has been alleged to be based on imperfect research suppositions. But it is becoming more apparent that this new social distancing adjustment is based more on politics and convenience than on carefully calibrated studies that include under-resourced schools.

In addition, even if the 3-feet separation is sustained, there is no guarantee for most schools that there will be enough teachers and support staff to accommodate the student populations even if they attend school on staggered schedules. The Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidance appears to be influenced more by politics than by science.

Educator-to Educator Transmission: It is also rarely acknowledged that teachers’ COVID-19 infections largely result from teacher-to-teacher contacts. Therefore, it is even more urgent for all teachers to receive their coronavirus shots as soon as possible, especially those with underlying health conditions.

Testing and School Ventilation: Regular testing of teachers and students in school settings is frequently placed on the back burner in terms of making schools safe for a return to in-person instruction. There is little attention to the mechanics and costs of the aforementioned safety requirements. Except in middle-class and wealthy school districts, it does not exist.

In a segment on last Sunday’s CBS 60 Minutes, an examination of the Marietta, Georgia School District’s return to in-person instruction revealed that testing for students and teachers, using the most sophisticated equipment, occurred daily. The school buildings were also modern and up-to-date with state-of-the art air circulation and HVAC systems. And the district possesses the financial resources to make any modifications necessary to prevent COVID-19 infections.

This is not the case for most public schools in Camden, Elizabeth, and Newark, New Jersey; Los Angeles and Compton, California; Gary, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Durham, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and hundreds of other low-wealth school districts across the country. The challenge of reopening schools is rife with exaggeration and outright false information in order to achieve political objectives couched in a positively promoted education policy.

And poor and working-class parents, overall, remain opposed to their children’s quick return to in-person teaching. As the overwhelming majority of these mothers and fathers are essential workers, they know firsthand the dangers of the coronavirus. Many have experienced it firsthand and have watched their co-workers perish from this pandemic.

Although schools need to be reopened safely and soon, teachers, low-income parents in particular, and the rest of us need to be mindful of the rationales that are being used to expedite the plans that are being put forth. There are multiple agendas at hand, and not all of them are in the best interests of teachers and students, particularly those who are poor. Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell and BC.

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is published  Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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