Reopening the schools: whether and how

back to school
U.S. Air Force/MGN

Editor’s Note: Gov. Walz is set to announce his plans for reopening schools Thursday, July 30.

Almost two-thirds of White parents who responded to a Minnesota Department of Education survey said they are comfortable sending their children back to school in September. A slim majority of Black parents said they were uncomfortable or not sure about sending their children back to school. Most Asian and Latinx parents responding to the survey also were uncomfortable or unsure.

Are more Black parents actually uncomfortable about sending their children back to school in September? If so, why? And what does that say about whether and how schools should reopen?

The Department of Education survey was not a scientific or randomized poll. The vast majority—more than 80 percent—of 130,000 people answering the question were White parents. The state’s K-12 student population is only 64 percent White. Nonetheless, the caution that Black parents expressed in the survey is echoed in other surveys around the country.

Why would Black parents feel less comfortable about school reopening?

Black parents have more to fear from COVID-19. Across the country, Black people are hit with COVID-19 at almost three times the rate of White people. Black people suffer 62 coronavirus cases per 10,000 people, compared to 23 per 10,000 for White people. Latinx communities see 73 cases per 10,000 people.

In Hennepin County, the disparity is much worse: 146 cases per 10,000 Black people, compared to 27 per 10,000 for white people. Latinx and Asian people also suffer higher rates of coronavirus infection.

Data show children are less likely than adults to get COVID-19. When they get the disease, it is likely to be less severe. On the other hand, some significant cases of in-school outbreaks exist: Three teachers in an Arizona summer school were infected and one died. A single Israeli school reported 130 cases, and dozens of other schools reported infections that led to a second school shutdown there.

Reopening schools increases adults at risk of infection. Nationally, almost one in five teachers is 55 or older. Others have medical conditions that put them at risk, or vulnerable family members. Custodians, lunchroom workers, and others also will be exposed to children and to one another. Reopening schools multiplies the ways coronavirus can spread through the community. 

The argument for reopening schools

Black students have been badly served by public schools in Minnesota. Educational disparities rank high on a long list of racial disparities in the state. Ironically, that may be an argument in favor of reopening those same schools.

Students suffer when schools are closed. On-line schooling is worse for most students, with “attendance” lagging and lack of in-person contact with teachers and with peers. Just over half the respondents to the Department of Education survey reported bad or very bad experiences with online learning this spring. 

The American Association of Pediatrics cites negative educational and social impacts of school closing. They recommend reopening with safety measures in place.

Parents need schools, too. They need to work at paid jobs to maintain their families. They need to work at the unpaid jobs of parenting and keeping homes together. The added burden of providing the education and socialization that kids get in school is just too much.

Black parents are overrepresented in low-paying but essential jobs. Inflexible work schedules leave them less time for homework help. Low pay means less money to spend on educational resources, from speedy internet to books to tutoring.

How to reopen?

Planning for reopening raises huge questions. How can a high school that has 30 students in a classroom with 28 desks plan for social distancing? What happens with music classes, given that singing greatly increases virus transmission? What kind of rules govern bathroom breaks and hand-washing? Who responds to sick students in schools that do not have nurses?

CDC guidelines recommend strategies to decrease risk. Some of their recommendations: six feet of space between desks; face masks for everyone; one student per row on buses; extra cleaning and disinfecting everywhere; small groups at lunch time; limited sharing of electronic devices, books, and learning aids; daily health screening for everyone. The entire guidance document covers nine pages.

These changes cost money. Schools don’t have money to follow the guidelines. Logically, the federal government could provide emergency aid, as it did to airlines and other businesses. President Trump has a different idea. Instead of talking about reopening risks and resources, he ordered the CDC to change the guidelines.

Counting down to Labor Day

In Minnesota, schools have been ordered to prepare three plans for September: in-person learning for all students, or hybrid learning with strict social distancing and capacity limits, or distance learning only.

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) will announce its decision by the week of July 27. That decision could call for all schools in the state to follow the same scenario, or for different districts to follow different scenarios.

No plan will look like September 2019. In-person reopening might require additional locations to allow more space for social distancing. It might mean keeping groups of students together all day (cohorting). Hybrid learning could mean all students getting equal in-school time. Or it could mean prioritizing students who have special needs or who need extra help for in-school time.

Whatever plan is approved, the devil will be in the details of how each district, school, and classroom implements plans to protect students and the community.