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COVID-19 isn't going away — here's how schools need to reopen

COVID-19 isn't going away — here's how schools need to reopen
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COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, possibly for several years. It’s time we started building plans within our public education system to deliver in-person instruction safely during the pandemic.

The new vaccine is unlikely to be widely available for the next several months. Many families have concerns about an eventual vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and it may take as long as 18 months for vaccination rates to reach levels that would yield something close to herd immunity — pointed to as the desired “safe” state for schools to reopen for in-person instruction. That amounts to about two years from today, at best.

As former D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and charter school leaders, had this pandemic occurred five years ago, we would have been among the officials making the decision on how and when to bring students back. As a medical doctor and a parent organizer, we know the stakes, the valid concerns of families and the consequences of failing to get students back in school. We also know that there is no replacement for in-person instruction. 

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Black and Brown children, as well as those from low-income backgrounds and children with special needs, are paying the greatest price for the current school closures. Families of means are enrolling in private schools for in-person instruction, hiring private tutors for learning “pods” and have the professional flexibility to support distance learning more effectively. As a result, learning is less and less equitable. 

At the same time, data show that schools are not likely to be high transmission risk sites when reopened right. Studies in Europe, South Korea and Australia show that schools can reopen safely with limited risk of school-based community spread. Recent research in Spain and closer to home in Utah confirm these findings. Even in states where reopening plans were expedited for political purposes like Florida, there has been little spread of the virus at schools themselves. This is because mask wearing, social distancing, proper ventilation and robust contact tracing work. 

However, simply setting a date for a return to in-person instruction is not sufficient. Trust is as vital as the science of public health. Even before the pandemic, we lived in a time of waning trust in institutions big and small. COVID-19 and the uneven response to it has exacerbated that erosion in trust. Some families that regularly received the annual flu vaccine are now reluctant to do so. Parents who once trusted their educators implicitly are increasingly concerned about educators’ abilities to keep their children safe from the virus.  

Much of this mistrust has deep roots for Black and Brown communities. Systemic racism has had a pernicious and expansive impact on the health of Black and Brown people for centuries. The decision, then, to receive a quickly approved vaccine for a novel coronavirus that is infecting Black and Brown people at higher rates than white people and making them sicker is understandably fraught. 

Earning confidence in a school’s virus prevention plans will be no small feat: A perfectly architected plan will fail without student, parent and teacher buy-in. Focusing on building, and rebuilding, trust is as important to reopening schools as the clinical validity of any prevention strategy or medical treatment. 

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Working with parents and communities to build trust on issues infused with historical weight is an incredible challenge, but it can be done. Creating space for a good-faith exchange of concerns and priorities is a must. So too is establishing an ongoing way for families, teachers and the community to articulate their perspectives across the coming weeks, months and, yes, years as the virus continues to dominate much of daily life. 

Finally, to build trust, we must lead with our values. That means living up to our ideals of equity, fairness and opportunity for all. By doing so, we can build the trust sufficient to let science guide the development of plans to safely and equitably reopen schools. 

While no family should be forced to send their student to in-person learning, every family should have the safe option to do so. Failing to provide that option will only compound educational inequities. Failing to provide that option will mean failing our children who already face the greatest barriers to success, likely for years to come. 

We must not resign any of our children to that diminished future. It will take planning, leadership and trust. But it is possible if we work together. 

Maya Martin Cadogan is the founder and executive director of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE) and has served in multiple leadership roles at public charter schools in the District. Dr. Nathaniel Beers is the president of the HSC Health Care System, a subsidiary of Children’s National Hospital, and previously served as chief operating officer and chief of Specialized Instruction of D.C. Public Schools. Beers is secretary of the PAVE Board of Directors.