Abstract: This article provides sourced commentary and analysis related to New Jersey and United States school reopening policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a considerable debate throughout the nation as we look toward September, which in the United States has long been the ceremonial start to the school year. Here in New Jersey, that is no different. Our shore-based economy enters its “shoulder season,” “locals’ summer” begins and we all start to lose the “sand in our shoes.”However, unlike years’ past we as a nation, despite the many positive signs for New Jersey, are grappling with a pandemic, which, in about five months, has seen over 4.4 million Americans become ill, and has killed over (as of this writing) 151,000 Americans (16 million cases, and 660,000 deaths worldwide). Despite these shocking numbers, the President of the United States, the United States Secretary of Education, and a host of other national, state, and local leaders are pushing to re-open schools. That push, while arguably understandable, is betrayed by the asking of a simple and fundamental question – Will children be safe if schools reopen? Frankly, until that question can be answered with an unqualified ‘Yes,’ we are purposefully, willfully, and obtusely setting our nation, our teachers, and our schools up for failure. Disappointingly, it would also suggest that we are comfortable using our children as pawns in a political debate being fought over ideological, not pedagogical or educational, lines.
To be clear, as a parent, I want my child to be in school. My child wants to be in school. Our nation mostly desires that children learn in their classrooms with their teachers and peers. It is certainly regarded as optimal when compared to the remote learning options that were created quickly in response to the pandemic. Nevertheless, it is also clear that a majority of Americans think opening schools, without dramatic alterations, is unsafe.Importantly, it would be unfair to compare all online learning to the hastily developed programming developed in response to the shutdowns of 2020. Online learning can and has achieved commendable results when done thoughtfully and deliberately. Furthermore, despite the fire-drill that occurred last school year, teachers and professionals met the herculean challenge of ensuring some semblance of continuity for children. Nevertheless, as the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is fond of saying, the goal should be children are in school.The obvious variable to normalcy here is the raging COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s a more than fair question to ask the Secretary (and anyone else pushing for schools to reopen) why should that be the goal right now? Of course, there are responses to this question, which should be considered.
Frequently, the concept of “socialization” is cited as a compelling reason to ensure schools are open. Children need to be with other children. Without the in-class experience, children will suffer negative effects on their mental health well-being. That point is fair. Children need to socialize for a host of reasons. However, the logic is frankly betrayed by itself. If we are seeking to prevent children from suffering adverse health issues, we must be consistent. We ought not, and need not think of this as a dichotomy of poisons to that we must pick (no socialization vs socialization), as we would never suggest that the only way to avoid chickenpox is required exposure to mumps. Furthermore, we do not yet have sufficient insight to determine if the perils of limited “socialization” are worse than the perils of contracting COVID-19. The limited long-term data available for COVID-19 makes any assertion of this nature a dubious educated guess at best, or a spurious conclusion at worst.
The argument has been made that without schools being open, there is no hope for economic recovery. Indeed, we should all have empathy for this point. The pandemic brought the economy to a halt. People lost jobs, were furloughed, or laid off; businesses closed, supply chains disrupted, countless people have had to rely on government programs for dollars, and housing assistance and bills are going unpaid. Nevertheless, it is not the job of schools or teachers to provide childcare. Surely, children are cared for while they attend school, yet that is arguably incidental, it is not the job of teachers and school systems to watch children while parents work. Convenient as it might be to entangle them when under normal conditions, childcare and education are two distinct services. Without question, this pandemic has laid bare the childcare crisis that we have in this nation. It is neither adequate nor affordable for most families, but again solving the childcare crisis should not come at the expense of potentially compromising student health. Schools have long been guided either in the de facto or the de jure sense by the “in loco parentis” standard, essentially assuring parents that the school system will provide parent-like care for children under their physical supervision (note: when under their physical supervision).That being the standard, and assuming no parent would send their child into a situation where they might suffer possible irreparable harm, school boards must consider this responsibility when making decisions. If this responsibility is properly prioritized, it is arguable that no school district can possibly reopen and remain ethically whole.
The argument that in-person learning environments cannot be replicated in remote or online settings is too frequently made, and it too is made reasonably. The obviousness of the statement needs no specific citation to affirm, but this statement is all the more relevant when discussing lower grade levels and for lab-based or other STEM programming that needs to be undertaken literally hands-on. Nevertheless, even if schools open using only the most minimal of recommendations to stem opportunities for transmission, the in-person experience being sought will be inherently compromised. Should a school open without any such measures in place, they will be opening themselves to a whirlwind of potential liability and litigation issues, all while being derelict in the responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for students and a safe workspace for teachers and staff.
We have heard the argument that following guidelines (of varying and nebulous authority) will ensure that schools can open safely. This might be true for some private and affluent districts. It is surely not the case in most of New Jersey. The vast number of individual districts in our state, all with localized control, ensures that virtually all students in the public school system will be exposed to different standards and procedures. A tremendous share of the state’s school districts struggle with funding under normal conditions, and surely do not have the resources at their disposal to implement recommendations that are both costly in terms of dollars and cents, or may simply be unfeasible based on available human resources, and geographic or building square footage limitations.This truth, while arguably enough to suggest schools should remain closed to in-person instruction, says nothing about the potential for tension and conflicts within communities, among parents, and possibly between students, and school staff with respect to consistently honoring whatever guidelines are put in place.
While these few examples illustrate the massive challenges we face, they are far from being an exhaustive listing. Furthermore, the massive amount of contingency plans that are necessary are neither fully developed nor are they likely affordable. What systems are in place if there is a failure, a breakdown, or an outbreak? If a single school has an outbreak does the entire building of students, teachers, and staff need to be quarantined? How will classes be covered, how will operations maintain continuity? What expectations will there be for teachers to have lesson plans ready for substitute teachers? Will we need more substitute teachers? Can we possibly find that amount of manpower? Can we afford that manpower? Are the technology resources needed? Are they in place? Are they affordable? Are people trained sufficiently? Are there necessary changes to human resources policies? DO these need to be negotiated? These questions are but a few of the many that will likely need to be addressed.
(Un)Fortunately, we need to look at the first week of major league baseball (MLB) to illustrate the what-if scenarios. MLB is an industry with more than enough financial and human resources, plenty of open-air space, and is staffed by adults – many of which are in the prime of their lives. MLB has access to the best healthcare money can buy, players are professional athletes (many of which) are in optimal physical shape. MLB has access to information and supplies, they have put in place strong protocols to ensure the spacing and limited human to human contact. Both the nation’s longing for its summer pastime and financial incentives provided more than enough carrots and sticks for MLB to put in place all feasible recommendations to ensure the safety of players and coaches. Yet, they still need buses, planes and buildings (in other words, they need to be in confined indoor spaces and transportation vehicles); and in one weekend 14 players and coaches on the Miami Marlins tested positive, and scheduled games are already having to be canceled.COVID-19 didn’t seem to care that a major industry flush with dollars and healthy people put in place standards or protocols.
Unlike MLB, NJ’s and the nation’s public schools have long suffered from decreased funding and limited resources, and that trend does not appear to be changing despite the tremendous need. If MLB can’t manage to keep COVID-19 out of clubhouses, with all of their resources, how can we possibly expect our schools to be free from it in their classrooms? Frankly, it lacks credulity to suggest that it is possible; and it is hard to conceive of how any serious advocate for our nation’s schools and our nation’s children would support reopening under these conditions. Opening schools now ensures distractions and a cadre of other duties that teachers will have to adapt, face, and overcome. It is hard to imagine that come September, districts, teachers, and students will be prepared to teach and learn in environments filled with these distractions. Teachers having to spend half their time policing proper guideline adherence is not a recipe for improving learning outcomes. Baseball having to be postponed is not a huge deal, we can survive without baseball games or with a clunky and inefficient delivery of the season, but what happens when the schools get rocked by an outbreak of similar scale…and they will. Who will mitigate parent, student, and staff anxiety and address the aforementioned questions about contingency and human resources? Why would we dive purposefully into a clunky and inefficient school reopening?
The push to open schools is reflective of desire: the desire to ensure children are educated, desire to ensure children socialize, desire to ensure that working parents feel secure in where their children are and what they are doing, desire to see our nation return to social, economic, and public health norms. These desires are noble and sincere, they come from a place of great concern and our nation must find solutions to triage and overcome these serious issues. Nevertheless, the push for opening schools does not reflect any inherent or irrefutable data that suggests learning outcomes will be enhanced by schools being re-opened, or that a thoughtful and well-developed remote learning option (which stands in contrast to the emergency migration to remote learning that occurred around March of 2020) for the time being cannot better steward the mission of safely educating our children. The argument to reopen schools reflects a desire for normalcy and amplifies the critical issues we face with respect to childcare in this nation. That desire and need are blinding to the fact that reopening schools is gambling with the safety and well-being of our school employees, families with school-age children, and indeed the most vulnerable of all populations, our children themselves.
Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D.
Sean M. Fischer has spent 15 years as a senior leader and advancement professional in NJ’s higher education sector, spanning both open-admissions and selective-admissions institutions. In addition, he teaches college-level courses in United States History and United States Government. He is a lifelong New Jersey resident, presently residing in Vineland. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in history from Rowan University, a master’s degree in political science from Villanova University, and his Doctorate in education from Creighton University.