At-risk kids can't be mentored through a screen — time to open schools
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After 40 years in education, I saw up close how many college athletes would never have made it to college without the strong help and guidance their grade school teachers provided. These are the students most impacted by continued school closures, and it’s their future on the line if we don’t reopen schools.

I recruited 18- and 19-year-olds from all over the country — in fact, I’d wager I’ve been in more public schools than many of my colleagues in Congress. I got to know young people and their families, of every race, religion, and economic background. For some of my athletes, I wasn’t just “Coach” — I was a mentor and a father-figure to those who had one or no parents at home.

There is no substitute for the in-person guidance, mentorship, or motivation a trusted adult can provide a student. At risk students who need that extra mentorship often get it at their schools or through their athletics programs, which can become a type of refuge from tough home situations. There is no escape hatch for these young people through a computer, tablet, or phone screen.

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At-risk students also depend on in-person instruction for their academic growth, nutrition, mental health services, and forming relationships with their peers. But still today, without regard to their needs or basic scientific fact, millions of students are currently denied access to these critical supports by being kept out of school.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, health care professionals lacked the data to make informed decisions, and it was reasonable to take extreme precautions. But a year into the pandemic, we’ve gathered a mountain of data on school closures and re-openings. Research shows that students suffer severe learning loss when kept out of the classroom for extended periods. According to a report from McKinsey & Company, during the 2020 spring lockdowns students on average “lost the equivalent of three months of learning in mathematics and one-and-a-half months of learning in reading.” The same study showed learning loss was even greater among low-income and minority students.

Keeping kids online is bad for their mental well-being. Mental health was already an area of growing concern for students, and the pandemic has only intensified that trend. A study from NBC News and Challenge Success of 10,000 high school students showed that those who were able to attend classes in-person were less-stressed and anxious than their online-only classmates.

The negative effects of keeping kids out of school are proven, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The science also shows that schools can open safely without serious risk to students, teachers, and staff, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made clear.

In my home state of Alabama, most students have had the option to return to in-person learning since the beginning of the school year. The safe return of in-person instruction has been incredibly difficult, and the efforts by teachers, administrators, and parents deserve our praise. They didn’t shy away because it was hard. They stepped up because they knew it was right; they knew the stakes of keeping kids out of the classroom for months at a time, especially for our low-income and minority students who often have the greatest needs.

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The Biden administration, congressional Democrats, and their teachers’ union allies have said schools can’t reopen safely reopen until the president’s COVID relief package is passed by Congress. Besides the overwhelming evidence that safe reopening has already occurred in schools across the country, only 5 percent of the education funding in the Democrats’ bill will be spent this fiscal year, with the remaining 95 percent — a whopping $122 billion — to be spent between 2022 through 2028. This is on top of the fact that states and school districts have only spent $4 billion of the $68 billion in relief funds they were given by Congress in 2020.

Democrat governors, mayors, and schools board are out of excuses. They already have the money. They already have the data that shows they can reopen safely. All they have to do is put the needs of the students first, and stand up to the teachers unions’ increasingly desperate, goalpost-moving demands to not return to work.

We need to prioritize our students, not politicize them. Our at-risk students need to be with their teachers, mentors, and peers. It’s time to follow the science. Let’s close the screens, and open the schools.

Tuberville is the junior senator from Alabama and a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.