I am calling for all Minnesotans to put their heart and soul into safely reopening K-12 schools. Studies show that bars and restaurants are major spreaders of coronavirus, but schools are not. The California Department of Public Health confirmed that “evidence shows that schools with the right mitigation strategies have been able to prevent in-school transmission among students and staff.” K-5 schools are fortunately beginning to fully reopen, but the state needs to also plan for grades 6-12. While the bars in Minnesota are now open, there are no plans to open my kids’ middle school in Minneapolis. Are bars that much more important than education?
I’m sympathetic toward those in hospitality who have lost their income, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that going to a restaurant doubled your chances of getting COVID-19. I keep hearing the slogan “We are all in this together,” but we aren’t. There are many of the “we” who are only somewhat masking or distancing. I’m a giant enthusiast of breweries and small restaurants, but if I could make a deal with the devil, I would never go inside another bar or restaurant for the rest of my life if my kids could go back to school. I can live without bars, but cannot live without schools.
Children are suffering
The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics asks that schools be provided with what they need to reopen, but only because “new information tells us that opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission of the virus.” A UNICEF study of 191 countries showed that a school being open or closed had no effect on infection rates, but “the longer schools are closed, the more children suffer from extensive learning losses with long term negative impacts, including future income and health.” A new McKinsey and Co. study on math found that by the end of this school year, “students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. … It doesn’t have to be this way.” Across the country thousands of schools have been successfully open for months, and many middle schools and high schools in other states are reopening right now. Are my kids going to lose the entire school year?
Vaccinating all teachers should be the priority, now that we are finishing vaccinating all health care personnel and residents of care facilities. Teachers never signed up for hazardous conditions, but for the sake of my children I am asking them to sign up to go into classrooms. My hope is that with vaccinations, teachers would be even safer, and feel appreciated for having made this sacrifice. My social work job often brings me face to face with people who have not been distancing or masking, but I turned down my initial vaccination opportunity to allow that shot to go to someone at greater risk than me. And I would gladly have teachers go before me. I keep hearing the schools say, “We are here for you,” and I believe that, but at this point my kids don’t need schools to be here for them, my kids need them to be over there in the classroom.
Benefits of reopening outweigh costs of closing them
The difference between bars and schools is that while owners and employees of hospitality businesses were going bankrupt, school employees are getting full salary. The hospitality industry therefore lobbied hard to open. But for schools, the LA Times wrote that “teachers unions have been the most powerful political force preventing reopenings.” The teacher unions in St. Paul and Minneapolis are lobbying their district leaders to delay the opening of schools for even the youngest children. But in many cities in the country, coalitions of physicians, health experts, educators, and parents have been forming to demand that districts do what it takes to get all grades safely back in schools, including closing staffing shortages. I agree with The LA Times when they also said that the opening of schools should be based on science and the needs of society at large. According to UNICEF, “evidence shows that the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them.” Society needed tens of millions of essential workers, like me, to continue working, why not now teachers also?
Despite their teachers’ best efforts, my kids are learning little through distance schooling. But because they spend six hours a day in front of a computer messing around on websites I haven’t yet blocked, what they are learning is internet addiction. I’m hearing the same story over and over from parents and educators. When the Washington Post reached out to families, it learned that “School-age children are losing interest in food. They are complaining of back pain and burning eyes. They are developing feelings of depression.” Imagine this multiplied by millions of households across the county, each privately experiencing their own tragedies.
Adults need to do their part
But let’s be clear, it is the adults who gather indoors without masks who are to blame for our schools being closed, not teachers. The head of the Minnesota teachers union says, “If we want children back in buildings … we all have to do what we need to do” (Star Tribune). I’m asking the governor for strong limits on indoor dining and drinking, asking everyone to avoid other people’s homes, asking the state to provide more emergency resources for schools, asking that school staff get vaccinated next, and asking teachers to return to classrooms.
John Champe is the father of two children, a mental health social worker, and a resident of Minneapolis, where he also researches inequality.
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