In March, Virginia became the second state to announce the closure of all public and private K-12 schools for the remainder of the school year. As of May 5, Education Week reported that 47 states, four U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have ordered or recommended schools close for the academic year.
Though school closures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic have pulled back the curtain on students’ inequitable educational experiences, these disparities always have existed — and many, if not most of them, are associated with broader societal inequities. While some children continue to have access to rich educational experiences, meals, medical and social services, and the like, others do not.
Millions of children also do not have access to a technological device or broadband internet. While some broadband services are being offered to households with K-12 students for free, students in rural areas often do not have access to these services. Many districts offer WiFi hot spots in school parking lots; however, this requires a student to have a means of transportation to the school. A recent report out of Phoenix noted that three high school students were seen huddled under a blanket outside a closed elementary school in order to access the school’s WiFi to do their homework.
Thousands of school districts are doing amazing work by offering free, hot meals to students each day. But some kids won’t be able to get them because they don’t have transportation to the distribution point. Without nutritious food, inequitable educational experiences will only be exacerbated for some students. Furthermore, thousands of homeless or displaced students reside in temporary housing or hotels, and face even more challenges in accessing basic needs.
In light of these impenetrable inequities, some have asked the tough question: Should schools remain open? And when can or should they reopen? This question typically is asked alongside data that suggests children are less likely to experience severe COVID-19 symptoms and represent fewer than 2% of all cases worldwide.
Some researchers recently conjectured that school closures have little impact on the spread of COVID-19. Other experts argue that the public health benefits of keeping schools closed are not proportionate to the social and economic costs for affected children and families. In making education policy decisions, should we be pitting these benefits against each other? While young children make up a small proportion of those who have contracted COVID-19, they still can be carriers of the virus and pass it along to vulnerable individuals.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education suggests that more than 6 million American adults are employed by K-12 public schools — many of whom are vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. Though some students might struggle with distance learning, how much learning loss will occur if COVID-19 affects — and potentially kills — the mentors, positive influences and role models of our nation’s kids: their teachers, administrators and school support staff, including food service, maintenance and janitorial workers?
The American Educational Research Association reports that COVID-19 has killed more than 80 current or former K-12 educators. For many children, the loss of an encouraging, supportive mentor could have detrimental social, emotional and academic impacts. Kids living in poverty or unstable home environments often have strong, positive relationships with at least a few adults in their schools. The mental, emotional and academic toll an educator’s death has on these students might be more pronounced than on their peers who have other positive adult relationships outside of school. Policy decisions must be made with every effort to not endanger the health of these K-12 educators. Our kids need them.
When I work with policymakers, I often hear the phrase “education policy is an adult’s playground.” All too often, decisions are centered on adults — their wants, needs and political viewpoints — rather than on what is equitable and beneficial for kids. But this is a time when it truly is important for education policy to focus on the adults, for the sake of their health and lives — and for the kids.