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We’re not ready to return to in-class learning

The Senate’s inability to pass the next COVID-19 relief bill is a not-so-subtle reminder that Washington’s political dysfunction is alive and well. Whether the final bill will include, as the House version did, resources for public education to ensure young Americans can learn in a safe, responsible, fair, and equitable way is unknown. What is clear is that we, as a nation, seem unwilling to accept a difficult fact: America is nowhere near ready for a return to in-class education.

We all want students back in the classroom. The benefits are obvious: socialization, problem solving, structure, discipline, and extracurriculars all play an important role in a child’s early formation. Experts agree that an in-school learning environment is optimal for a student’s overall mental and physical health.

But we are far from optimal right now. COVID-19 cases are on the rise across the United States, especially among young people. We have no national strategy to defeat it. There is no national mask mandate, no national testing protocol, and no plan to establish a reliable pipeline of testing materials. The lack of federal leadership is about the only thing we can count on at the moment.

There’s no clear or unified approach serving the health and education needs of America’s students. Threats by President Trump to pull federal funding from public schools if they didn’t fully reopen were destructive and immoral. Now school districts are making individual decisions about learning this fall that seem to be guided more by politics than public health. One high school in Georgia — whose governor made headlines for reopening the state’s economy too soon — brought its students back weeks ago and now has 35 new reported cases of coronavirusOther school districts throughout the country have adopted more measured approaches. 

We already know how this movie will end for schools that bring students back to campus too soon because we’ve seen Part I. The ability for teachers and kids in many schools to socially distance will be nearly impossible. A predictable lack of compliance with mask guidance (where it exists) and hand-washing will inevitably result in new cases and clusters. Exposure risks will skyrocket for the elderly and those with underlying conditions living in the same homes where in-classroom students or classroom teachers return each day. The only certainty arising from a return to classrooms is that the virus will continue to spread, and people will die.

Many states ignored guidelines for reopening businesses and paid a heavy price. They disregarded calls from public health experts urging it was only safe to do so if they had a sustained 14-day drop in new cases, among other criteria. As cases rise in states across the country, why should we expect a return to in-class learning to produce a different outcome?

We yearn to return to normalcy and view a new school year as a fresh start and a new beginning. We remember Dr. Anthony Fauci’s hopeful prediction back in early April: “I fully expect … that by the time we get to the fall that we will have this under control enough, that it certainly will not be the way it is now — where people are shutting schools. … Bottom line, no absolute prediction. But I think we’re going to be in good shape.” 

Had states followed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for reopening their economies, Dr. Fauci’s wishful outlook might have come true. The desire now for a “normal” learning environment cannot come at the expense of our collective public health. 

Which brings us back to the stalled COVID-19 relief bill. The Senate must act, and the bill must include funding to make public education and distance learning successful for everyone. The HEROES Act, which passed the House in May, provided ample resources that would have supported the expansion of a human and physical infrastructure to improve remote education and protect public health. The bill must also address the digital divide and provide funds to close the educational equity gap. Doing so will ensure that all students, especially those in low-income areas who don’t have access to broadband or modern computer devices, can distance learn and keep pace with their peers. 

Governing in this environment is hard. It takes political will to make tough decisions and prioritize people over politics. Public health must always prevail. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPh, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Tags Anthony Fauci COVID-19 pandemic in Texas Donald Trump Education Educational technology Science and technology Trump administration communication during the COVID-19 pandemic

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