Back-to-school puzzle an ‘unsolvable Rubik’s Cube’

ZUMA / MGN

Keeping kids safe is also slowing their learning

Minneapolis and St. Paul are among many U.S. school districts that are starting the 2020-21 school year with more distance learning, which began when schools shut down in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the debate over distance learning and its overall impact on students has not quieted down despite fears among many parents, teachers and others over reopening schools. It seems that just as many want their school-age children back in the classroom.  

An Axios.com article says that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to “the sudden, dramatic disruption of education” since the state shutdown in March. The article adds that as a result we can expect “deep social and economic repercussions for years, if not decades.”      

A June study by the nonprofit education research group Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) defined “a COVID-19 slide” as students showing patterns of academic setbacks due to schools being closed for nearly six months.

The National Urban League said during a June educational virtual panel discussion that “longstanding [educational] inequities have been exacerbated and created uncertainty in the academic progress of the most vulnerable students, including students of color” because of distance learning due to COVID.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines for opening up schools consists of five scenarios: in-person teaching, part time or hybrid schedules, distance learning, and two scheduling levels where elementary school students are in school more often than older students. 

 “There will be no sense of normalcy” no matter what scenario is used, said Minneapolis Public Schools’ Michael Walker, one of the panelists of the August 12 African American Leadership Forum (AALF) virtual forum that discussed the COVID’s impact on children as the new school year approaches.

Walker is the director of MPS’ Black Student Achievement Office. He said, “It is in the best interest for us to stay out until we have the safety measures in place.”

Reportedly over 100,000 school children in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus since reopening schools this month. State and county health officials say coronavirus cases in Minnesota have risen largely in part of more inflections among children and teenagers.  

APM Research Lab’s Andi Egbert, during a Twitter Q&A last week, told the MSR, “I think the back-to-school issue is an unsolvable Rubik’s Cube. Research tells us younger kids may be less mask[-wearing] compliant but less of a spreader threat, while older kids are more compliant but a higher threat.”

“It’s not one variable that’s causing” the increase in COVID cases, said Children Hospital Nurse Adriene Thornton. “Before, we were keeping our kids home and keeping them safe, keeping our distance. Now we are seeing more kids testing positive for the coronavirus disease.

“COVID-19 is on pace to become the third leading cause of all deaths in the U.S.,” Thornton declared. “No one should be OK with that. It is a serious disease, but we don’t have everyone on the same page on how to manage it.” 

“There are a lot of guidelines,” admitted Thornton, a regular panelist on the AALF series on COVID’s impact on the Black community. “It is going to be different from school to school and district to district depending on the resources. There is a lot of planning.”

“Going back to school feels very scary, so unstable,” said Ayolanda Mack. She and her husband have been their two children’s “teachers” since the state lockdown this past spring and will continue to home school them this fall. “You don’t have to have a rigid schedule. We have school around the clock,” she pointed out.

Parents in Community Action Operations Director Monshani Chandler said that her organization has been working with parents, providing informational videos for families and children on “how to talk about COVID.”

“We have to make better for our students and families, specifically around this distance learning process,” said Walker. “If we’re thinking we can replicate what we did in the classroom, we are sadly mistaken, because we will continue those same disparities.

“If we think we will go back to schools and do the same thing we have been doing, this will create those same disparities.” He added that students and community “should also be in the process to help us make better decisions.”

If and when schools are reopened locally, Thornton advises parents to be involved in ensuring that their children are safe, such as by checking classrooms and building spaces. “We can’t put them in a bubble,” she concluded, but we can “ask the hard questions. Hold the school accountable.”