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When and How to Reopen Schools

Written By Elaine Maimon

Public school teachers and staff should be among the first to be vaccinated. When they are protected—and only then—schools can reopen.

Debate has been raging on when instead of how. The Pfizer vaccine is imminently available, so we can now make a plan for face-to-face instruction in metro-Philadelphia public schools with vaccination of teachers and staff as the starting point. Teachers and school staff members are essential workers, many of them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of age, pre-existing conditions, or both. When they are protected, live education can proceed.

In addition to the arguments about when, we’ve read a lot about why the schools should reopen and stay open. There is little doubt that students need in-person instruction, although, as an aside, I can’t help but wonder at the urgency expressed by some on the right wing who used to strongly advocate for home schooling. No doubt the evidence is growing that young people need—and yearn for—the social interactions of the classroom. Kindergarten was cancelled last March for our six-year-old granddaughter. She is now doing first-grade remotely. Not ideal. She soldiers on for hours at a time interacting with teacher and classmates on a video screen. She misses personal interactions and finds that the learning itself has a certain coldness.

Our daughter is a second-grade teacher in the Philadelphia public schools. She has always worked hard, but now she is toiling almost 24/7 to do the extensive planning necessary to keep second-graders engaged remotely. She has even found some Zoom advantages, for example, to see in close-up troubled facial expressions in time to address the problem. Zoom itself has led to the kids creating new games, like changing their names on the screen to story-book characters or even appropriating the teacher’s name. But on the whole the students would learn more and be more productive in the physical classroom.

Students can return to the classroom before they are vaccinated since we have scientific evidence that the kids are not all that likely to infect each other with life-threatening symptoms. The schools should, of course, follow CDC protocols for testing, distancing, and masks. But if the working adults in the schools are vaccinated, then slips in the protocols will be less likely to be deadly. Preparing for adherence to CDC guidelines costs money. At this writing Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking federal stimulus funds, some of which would assist in planning for school reopening—an important part of how we reopen the schools.

So let’s get the teachers and staff inoculated. Even then some Philadelphia schools will not be healthy places. We are grateful that the Powel School, where our daughter teaches, will in January move to a new building—one where occupants can breathe the air, free of the toxins ravaging the old school building. Kudos to Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania, for contributing $100 million of institutional funds to clean up asbestos and other poisons from the air students and staff breathe in too many schools. Before the pandemic, asthma was an epidemic among Philadelphia school children, as well as among urban school kids in other cities. This year of COVID should be a time of reflection. President Gutmann understands that Philadelphia public school students won’t stand a chance of becoming Penn students or of having any kind of success if they miss untold days of instruction because of unclean air. When the schools reopen, we have to clean them up.

When the kids put on their back-packs and gather again in live classrooms, let’s remember the extraordinary work that teachers and school employees do. Parents have had a taste this year of how challenging it is to teach kids to read, write, and compute. Let’s honor the teachers and staff. Let’s pay them better. But first, let’s vaccinate them.


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