Choosing whether to reopen schools is a matter of life or death

Choosing whether to reopen schools is a matter of life or death
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When our schoolhouse doors closed last spring amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, my thoughts turned constantly to reopening. As spring break gave way to graduation season and then the last day of school, the decision of when to reopen — how to reopen — loomed large. In the final analysis, I opted for the common sense choice: to keep the doors of our Prince George’s County Public Schools, where I serve as the chief executive officer, closed for instruction.

Educators, like parents, commit unconditionally to protecting the children we serve. That commitment does not change with unforeseen circumstances or inconveniences, even during a global pandemic. That is why Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), located in Maryland, will continue distance learning this fall rather than returning to classrooms in person. 

Within days of the graduation season ending, and COVID-19 raging, the national conversation shifted to whether schools would reopen this fall. Everyone had an opinion, but few people had plans. We received lots of options, with little guidance on the logistics required to conduct operations, including how students will use transportation safely to arrive and return home from school, and limiting contact between students, educators and staff. 

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We did not come to our reopening decision lightly. We weighed every option from returning fulltime to implementing a hybrid schedule; we surveyed the community and found more than 45 percent of families — and more than 50 percent of educators and administrators — preferred to continue the distance learning model. In the end, we made the clear choice.

Maryland is one of 38 other states still experiencing an increase in the average number of new coronavirus cases. In Prince George’s County, where the majority of the population is minority, COVID-19 cases are surging and the death rate remains twice as high nationally. Communities of color are at the epicenter for COVID-19. Centuries of structural inequities have contributed to the ongoing racial disparities caused by coronavirus, with Black and Brown families at greater risk of contracting and dying from the virus.

As I weighed the reopening decision here at home, like many of my fellow superintendents, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the almost predictable tenor of the discussion playing out across our country. Instead of developing a national strategy on what we needed to prepare our schools to welcome back students and teachers, we have spent too much time on the politicization of mask-wearing, bullying teachers and families to go back to school, ignoring health experts and basic science.

CDC guidelines state, “If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk. Children can pass this virus onto others…” Corralling children and adults into classrooms will likely increase their chances of infections and the likeliness of their parents and grandparents contracting the virus. When parents and grandparents get sick, it begins a vicious cycle, especially in single-parent households where resources and help are limited. If parents are sick, it limits a child’s ability to travel to school, obtain a meal and increases the spread of COVID-19.

In our county, parents, guardians and grandparents are already under enough pressure, working as frontline workers. Over half of PGCPS students receive free and reduced price meals — an indication of the economic realities facing families from Maryland to Oregon.

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To meet this need, PGCPS will ensure that all 136,500 students have a laptop of their own on day one. We will cover the cost of internet connectivity for any family in need. Implementing distance learning exposed the unacceptable gaps created in the digital divide; we must invest millions to keep our students connected and learning.

Our students will start their school year from living rooms and kitchen tables, not homerooms and auditoriums. They will miss the excitement of the first day of school, reconnecting with friends and teachers. But limiting their the potential exposure to a virus that has claimed over 135,000 lives and counting will help keep them safe. In a school system of over 136,500, the United States has lost a life for almost every student within our care — staggering numbers that represent someone’s family member, friend, colleague and classmate.

When it’s time to make tough decisions that impact our children, we must rise to the occasion. As a parent, principal and now as a school system leader, I have faced challenging moments. These same moments have allowed me to remember to always put our teachers and students first.

One day we will return to a “new normal.” I will be on stage again, handing out diplomas and congratulating students. Until we reach that point, I am committed to keeping our children safe.

Educators pledge to care for your children as if they are our own. In challenging times like these, it's not semantics or political posturing — it's a matter of life or death.

Dr. Monica Goldson is chief executive officer of Prince George’s County Public Schools.