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Opinion: We cannot reopen our schools like this

At a special called meeting Tuesday, July 7, the Gwinnett County Public Schools Board of Education announced school will begin on Aug. 12 instead of Aug. 5 as previously stated. AJC file photo
At a special called meeting Tuesday, July 7, the Gwinnett County Public Schools Board of Education announced school will begin on Aug. 12 instead of Aug. 5 as previously stated. AJC file photo

I represent the largest and most diverse school district in the state of Georgia. For me, public education is personal; I would not be able to serve the schools from which I graduated without the educators who dedicated their lives to providing me high-quality, in-person instruction.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves asked to solve problems well beyond our control as locally elected school board members. We simultaneously lack the sufficient resources, strategic planning, and coherent guidance from state and federal leadership that would enable us to safely reopen schools. While I commend our district, and many others across the state, for recognizing the complexity of this challenge, our increasingly unknown future with COVID-19 requires a commonsense approach above the fray of partisan pressure. With over 130,000 deaths and 3 million cases nationwide, and Georgia’s spiking caseload, and numerous contradictions regarding susceptibility to infection for children and adults, it is unfathomable for us to summon in-person school reopenings in a more perilous predicament than the one in which we initially chose to close them.

While we all want to return to a sense of normalcy, our reopening must be rooted in a reality that safeguards the health and well-being of our students and staff. And today’s reality is this: we have not yet improved our capacity to provide the testing, guidance or technology needed to return to full-time, in-person schooling. Additionally, amid these very pressing public health concerns, school districts also find themselves in a budget shortfall, wondering how we responsibly fund public education this year and in future years with an impending economic recession. This leaves us with only one pragmatic option right now: digital learning in every viable scenario.

Everton Blair, Gwinnett County School Board.
Everton Blair, Gwinnett County School Board.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

I lament that we must make these decisions and recognize the many significant implications that come with this recommendation. Primary among these for me is that our most vulnerable students, for whom in-person instruction is the most critical, are also those who disproportionately struggle with access to digital learning and whose parents will be the most financially impacted during this pandemic. Digital learning also continues to be challenging for K-2 early learners, students receiving special education services, English learners and others. We need additional support so that we can make exceptions in these extenuating circumstances.

As we gap-fill our ideal of in-person instruction with digital learning, we must ensure internet access as a public utility. Otherwise, we leave students without learning options at all. Our school systems were unprepared for the collateral damage caused by a failed national response in the spring, but the truth is, the lack of access to the internet was a pre-COVID problem that this pandemic is exacerbating in the most underserved communities. As Gwinnett rapidly responded to school closure, we lost touch with more than 3,500 students who were without laptops or access to the internet. If equal educational opportunity is to be truly guaranteed, then the network necessary to access it must be guaranteed too; lest we risk privatizing a good that we intend to be public.

Right now, the virus dictates our future. And so does good leadership. While we are operating with the most up-to-date information provided by our public health experts, for many questions, we will not know the appropriate answer until it is irrelevant. We need to have a sense of humility as we redress and amend our decision-making processes. But we also need to make firm decisions that give enough runway for our system to actually work and for our staff to effectively serve our students. While it is unreasonable for us to demand or expect omniscience on the part of any school leader or elected official, we can do much better than this. And we must demand better from those who have the power to properly fund and equip our schools in the midst of this crisis.

The immediate federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that we have the capacity to find a way where there is no visible path forward. When employees were at the brink of being laid off, we provided payroll protection. When most Americans needed a stimulus to pay the rent and buy critical goods, we wrote $1,200 checks. If education is an essential business, as it should be, we need to prioritize the conditions that will promote our collective success, health and learning accordingly. That must include teachers and staff. As online learning fills our current void and grows in its utilization, we must use this opportunity to push for internet access for all.

This is a call to action. If our state and local government cannot implement basic public health guidance nor invest in the infrastructure to expand testing and internet access, we call upon American companies to do so. We must systematically address this public health and economic dilemma with the same attention and urgency that we do with every other profitable one.

The future of our children depends on it.

Everton Blair serves on the Gwinnett County Board of Education.