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Let the littlest state lead us on COVID-19

Let the littlest state lead us on COVID-19
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With hospital beds filled and field hospitals scrambling to open, Gov. Gina RaimondoGina RaimondoChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report US, EU establish trade and technology council to compete with China On World Oceans Day, we need a sea change MORE on Monday ordered Rhode Island to begin a two-week pause in an attempt to stop out-of-control coronavirus spread in her state. The governor ordered bars, gyms, movie theaters and the like closed — but she is keeping schools open.

Raimondo should be praised for recognizing what too many state and local leaders ignore: Hard data have proven, and America’s scientists have reached consensus, that students in classrooms are not significant spreaders of COVID-19.

One of the largest studies, led by Brown University economist Emily Oster PhD, analyzed in-school infection data from 47 states for two weeks at the end of September. Out of 200,000 students who returned to the classroom, just 0.13 percent tested positive for COVID-19. Positive tests for 63,000 staff clocked in at 0.24 percent. Cases nationwide have dramatically increased since then, but even in places that had low-positivity rates, schools remained closed while nonessential businesses welcomed customers — and likely contributed to community spread.

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People can argue all day long about painful decisions to open or close businesses. But given what we now know about the harmful effects of social isolation on our most vulnerable children, there should be no question about our priorities when it comes to education. Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 Ex-Trump doctor turned GOP lawmaker wants Biden to take cognitive test White House officials won't say if US will meet July vaccine goal MORE is on the record as far back as the summer in support of sending students back to the classroom, with proper precautions. “The default principle should be to try as best you can to get the children back to school,” Fauci told the Washington Post on August 7.

Alternatively, schools that are forced by higher authorities to close must be prepared to offer students good online instruction. Because Washington hasn't provided state departments of education with the aid they need to ensure districts provide solid remote teaching and learning, we risk a repeat of last spring when both the quality and quantity varied widely, and students lost ground.

In many districts, last spring was a disaster — especially for younger children, children of color, children from low-income households and children with disabilities. As a result, the achievement gap grew. For example, the Washington Post reported a 28 percent achievement gap between the District’s Black and White students in kindergarten through second grade meeting early literacy assessment expectations at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year. At the beginning of this year, the gap had grown to 36 percent for Black children and 37 percent for Latino students.

When schools closed last spring, it was estimated that 30 million students who depend on school breakfast and/or lunch for nutrition were at risk of hunger. Feeding America now says that 32 percent of the child population is food insecure in states like Nevada and Louisiana. In more than 10 states, more than 25 percent of kids are food insecure, and in North Dakota, the state with the lowest child food insecurity, more than 15 percent of children are still at risk of going hungry. 

Long-term school closures have also hurt family budgets. As of September, 865,000 women – most often the primary caregivers to out-of-school children – dropped out or were forced out of the workplace. According to McKinsey, Black women are being disproportionately impacted. 

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Given the health and economic data, why have so many districts kept schools shuttered while keeping the bars open? Pressure from teacher unions.

From most urban centers, like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, to affluent suburbs like Fairfax, Virginia, to more rural districts in Washington state and Idaho, teacher unions have pressured local officials, and local officials have caved, or appeared to cave, to their demands. This makes no sense when you consider that police and firefighter unions across the country, whose members are at greater risk in the general population, have carried on with few complaints

The teacher unions in Rhode Island have complained too — but Gov. Raimondo has her priorities straight. The Washington post reports that the state is training 500 substitute teachers to step in when too many staff members are out. New HEPA air purifiers are expected to be in 6,000 classrooms by the end of the month. A pilot surveillance testing program is about to launch. In short, Rhode Island is pulling out the stops to keep schools open as possible. In the absence of a national strategy, the wise governor of the nation’s littlest state is leading the way.

Tressa Pankovits is the associate director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at Progressive Policy Institute.