Opinion: No right answer on reopening schools

University of Georgia professor says: Focus on the support and healing that is needed

Hilary E. Hughes is an associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia. Her last piece for the AJC Get Schooled blog talked about the challenges facing single parents during the pandemic. She also co-wrote a piece on learning in the time of COVID-19 that went viral.

In this guest column, Hughes discusses the debate over how best to open schools, maintaining there is no single path that will work for all schools and all children.

By Hilary Hughes

Let’s be clear. There is no “right” answer for reopening our schools this fall that will serve all of our nation’s children in equitable and safe ways. Federal and state governments have allowed local districts the “freedom” to choose which models they will use to reopen schools, online or in-person, with no funding (to date) which supports any option.

The Council on School Facilities estimates $20 billion is required for schools nationwide to effectively implement all of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations to reopen schools. And the National Academy of Sciences reported that half of our nation’s school districts are in need of replacing multiple building systems but do not have the funding to do so. Some buildings are so old they don’t have the recommended mitigation necessities recommended by the CDC, nor do they have the funding to fully (or even partially) pay for those necessities.

Let’s examine air quality as one example. A recent report from Harvard School of Public Health pointed out the importance of ensuring air quality and proper ventilation if schools reopen this fall. Schools need to bring outside air into buildings to dilute or displace any droplets containing the virus that might be in the air. They also recommend “avoiding recirculation of indoor air, increasing filter efficiency, and supplementing with portable air cleaners.”

I am not sure how long it’s been since you’ve been inside an aged school building. If it’s been since your own schooling, you can visualize the HVAC system possibly being the same one from back in your day. Kidding, not kidding. Some schools don’t have any windows in their classrooms and others have windows that haven’t opened for decades. Who will pay for these mitigation efforts?

It’s the beginning of August and I know of very few districts that have come up with anything other than what we did last spring, and those conditions seemed to exacerbate educational and social class disparities. As much as we want schools to reopen, we have to be thoughtful and equitable in our decisions so we can assure those decisions will serve all of our students, rather than a select few.

Articles have been circulating about approaches school districts might consider that illustrate thinking outside of the in-person/online binary which currently dominates many districts’ plans. Jones (2020), for example, recommends community-embedded small learning groups, while Griffin (2020) advocates for more socially just ways to consider the risks and trade-offs of particular populations returning to school, to mention only a few.

Hilary E. Hughes

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Another way we can be more thoughtful and equitable is to unlearn the narrative that students are “so behind” because of COVID-19 Schooling. Before we delve into the rigorous academics so many are worried about, we might instead focus on the support and healing that is needed this fall and beyond. Psychologists have warned, for example, about the added trauma BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Color) have experienced, and that includes students, teachers, administrators, and other school personnel who have had to reconcile the effects of the Twin Pandemics: watching the virus disproportionately infect and kill people who look like them, while they simultaneously continue experiencing the daily trauma of Black people and other people of color being murdered.

When preparing to return this fall, school districts could provide time for teachers, counselors, and social workers to collaborate on the most effective ways to support their particular students’ emotional well-being, whether online or in-person. As educational researchers and mental and public health professionals remind us, it’s Maslow’s Hierarchy 101: when the basic needs of humans aren’t met, learning cannot take place.

If I’m a kid who has spent the last five months stuck in my home, watching my parents figure out how to work from home or look for work, while also experiencing the daily trauma of watching people who look like me murdered, while also learning that people who look like me are being infected and dying more than those who don’t because of COVID-19, I might not be able to follow a prescribed program’s recommendations to “draw how I feel” on day one, or take deep breaths and slowly count backwards from 10 to “calm myself down” when another student or my teacher says something racially insensitive and harmful on day 10. We must take all of these things into consideration when deciding how this school year will unfold, or it will be detrimental to families and communities.

We have no idea what will happen this fall with schooling or with COVID-19. We don’t know if the social uprising for Black lives will finally (hopefully) stick and force the systemic change we so need. But we cannot allow all of this uncertainty to leave us in decision paralysis.

There are things we can do, like think creatively about how to support all students and demand our government foot the bill for our nation’s children and their teachers. Call your state Legislatures. Write letters. Tell them they must act. As we have seen for decades, collective voices matter. Let’s not allow our children and their teachers to become a social experiment because of our negligence.

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