The COVID-19 epidemic creates a huge challenge for our schools.
Education leaders face difficult choices. On the one hand, bringing hundreds together in a school building seems unsafe. On the other hand, home learning does not work well for all students and creates a burden on many working families.
The choices have become controversial in some communities. Over the past few weeks, I have had many conversations with parents, teachers, school administrators, school committee members, and with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Children and families vary widely how they feel about home learning. Some children like home learning and some parents are concerned about the risks of sending their children to school. Other children and families have a desperate need to return to the regular routine of school.
Those in greatest need include children with special needs, English language learners, and homeless children.
I think often of a story told to me by a close friend who has taught kindergarten for decades in the Boston schools. She has taught in many different elementary schools within the city. In affluent neighborhoods, kids are eager for school to end so that summer can begin, but in the poorest neighborhoods, some kindergartners weep as mid-June approaches.
While the need for in-person instruction may be most acute for children in easily recognized need categories, even children with many home advantages can suffer from isolation. We hear anecdotal evidence of increased depression and emotional stress among young people.
Emotional or academic needs aside, school gives children critical opportunities to grow socially and emotionally through the interaction with each other and with adults outside the family.
While the advantages of in-person learning are clear, the challenges in making it work are also clear. To reduce COVID-19 transmission, state guidelines require physical spacing between children. Most school districts cannot achieve that physical spacing either on school buses or in classrooms if all children attend school at the same time.
Additional barriers to in-person learning may include ventilation problems that increase viral transmission, and the health care risks that some teachers may face. While children face limited risk of complications from COVID-19, they can pass it to higher-risk adults working in the schools and the virus is too new to rule out risk for children completely.
Some school districts, especially among those in high-infection-rate communities, have chosen all remote learning and most have chosen some form of hybrid learning with kids coming to school in shifts and doing some of their learning at home.
I have felt it important to respect the difficult conversations that parents, teachers, school administrators and elected school committee officials are going through together. Those closest to the challenges need to make the decisions about how to meet the challenges.
As people have reached out to me from different perspectives, I have reflected at length on how I can be helpful. Here are the things that seem important for me to focus on as a legislator.
First and most importantly, I will make sure that we honor our commitment to hold schools harmless from the revenue losses inflicted on the state budget by the COVID-19 recession in Fiscal 2021. The schools need additional personnel as they try to support multiple learning models. Now is not the time to cut school budgets.
Second, I will continue to ask questions about how we can bring cheaper, more convenient COVID testing to Massachusetts. The current diagnostic nasal swab test is uncomfortable and expensive. If we had cheap, convenient testing that offered quick results, it might create new options for higher-contact learning. So far, the products we have investigated have not been ready for wide use.
Finally, I will try to assure that the contributions made by state agencies to the process are constructive. A delegation of legislators recently conveyed strong concern to senior leadership of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education when they threatened school systems with “soup to nuts” regulatory audits.
This post written in the first person singular reflects input from Representative Dave Rogers. Another version of this post written in the first person plural was submitted jointly to the Belmont Citizen Herald by Dave and me. The post may appear in some form in other local papers.