When the coronavirus hit the United States and schools began to shut down across the country, a lot of parents were faced with the prospect of having their children back at home. Having their kids home from school was definitely a burden for all parents. But for some, schools and childcare centers closing came at a great cost to their livelihoods.
Essential workers, especially low-income essential workers, cannot afford to stay home, let alone spend extra time educating their children. The achievement gap between affluent and low-income students is wide enough as it is, but studies have shown that students have already suffered significant learning losses during the pandemic which are projected to worsen by the fall.
When I went home from college for spring break in March, I didn’t come back. I spent the rest of the semester rolling out of bed to log onto my Zoom classes and somehow managed to write thirty-five pages of essays in five days. To be honest, not much had changed from being on campus besides the in-class meetings and outings with friends.
However, my eight-year-old sister and former second grader went from an all-day learning environment to 20-minute Zoom meetings three days a week with her class. My mother, an essential worker, spent most of her weekdays out of the house while my sister’s father neglected to implement any kind of learning environment while he was laid off. Therefore, the teaching was up to me: a humanities major with absolutely no credentials to teach a child how to add and subtract. I can barely do it myself.
Most days, after a lot of arguing, we set down to work and practiced spelling, reading comprehension, and subtraction with three-digit numbers. My sister, as smart as she is, has a difficult time expressing her frustration without screaming or throwing objects across the room. In other words, it was armageddon every time she got stuck on a math problem. Meanwhile, I had my own schoolwork to get done and my stepfather was on the couch blasting CNN as my sister was trying to spell “competition” at the kitchen table.
What I’m trying to get at - besides complaining about being at home with my family - is how much we need schools. While some students may have been perfectly fine adjusting to remote learning, a lot of kids that live in unstable learning environments are falling behind. And for children with social/emotional issues or learning disabilities, the disparities are even worse. As great as they are, most parents aren’t qualified to teach their children. We have teachers for a reason.
But as much as we need children to return to school, is it even safe to do so? A USA Today/Ipsos poll conducted in May reported that 20% of teachers said they weren’t likely to return if schools reopen in the fall. Another poll found that 10% of teachers are more likely to quit their jobs now than they were before the pandemic began, and 65% said they want schools to remain closed to prevent the virus from spreading.
According to Time, 30% of teachers in Michigan are considering leaving their profession or retiring early because of coronavirus, and 45% of Connecticut teachers believe they’re at a high risk of developing a severe respiratory illness if they contract the virus due to their age or an underlying condition. And even if students do return to school, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends spacing desks six feet apart, seating one child per row on school buses, and closing communal spaces like cafeterias and playgrounds.
How are schools supposed to follow these rules in cramped classrooms? How can teachers ensure that their students keep their masks on and don’t share their toys? In under-resourced schools where the teacher to student ratio is 1:20, these guidelines are nearly impossible to follow. Affluent families have the option to hire private tutors, but that leaves the majority of students behind.
As the fall approaches and the number of cases rise in the U.S., the prospect of going back to school seems impractical and dangerous. I wish there was a clear, cut-and-dried answer telling us how to safely return to school, but I don’t think there is one. And as much as we value learning and the social/emotional development of children, is it really worth it to send them back to school if it means life or death?
Header image via Unsplash
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Grace Weinberg (she/they) is a senior at Simmons University pursuing BAs in English, Women's & Gender Studies, and Spanish in addition to interning at BUST. When she's not reading in bed with her french bulldog, you can find her rollerskating or watching the next feminist horror flick. Follow her on Twitter at @GraceWeinberg6.