Commentary: Resuming school this fall will be a huge task

Educators want schools to open, but in classrooms or at home it will take effort and investment.

By Pamela Sepúlveda Wilson / For The Herald

It’s at the top of every parent’s mind right now: What will school look like this fall?

As school districts are making plans, we need to focus on reopening safe schools that reach every student equitably. That means ensuring COVID-19 protections are in place for every student and educator, and significantly improving distance learning to break down barriers that held students back this spring.

As a parent and educator, I’m not comfortable sending students into a school building unless we know we can prevent COVID transmission. I understand that the child mortality rate is lower, but even putting one child at risk is too much. We have staff who are at-risk; they shouldn’t have to choose between the jobs they love and personal safety. Furthermore, I worry that there will be adults or children who are carriers who may not have symptoms and inadvertently spread it to others. We need to re-open correctly — cautiously and safely — to protect our entire communities.

I teach English language learners throughout my elementary school. Abiding by the state Department of Health guidelines, social distancing is going to be almost impossible with the class sizes we have. Walking in hallways, lunches, recess time; I don’t know how we can have these groups passing each other safely.

Some students, educators or their family members have health concerns. I don’t know how we we’ll be able to keep them safe and still provide every student access to the quality education they deserve. When I think about families who are opting to home-school their students, typically they are the most privileged. Students of color and working families are more likely to have to send their children to school, putting them at risk if we aren’t sufficiently prepared. We need to be thoughtful of our whole school community and not just those who are most privileged.

Pulling this off will require federal and state funding to provide protective equipment for educators and students, plus the additional staff we’ll need for screening students and staff, and sanitizing and cleaning buildings, equipment and supplies. In the past students have shared pencils, scissors, markers, books, you name it. This year we’ll need more of all of those things to reduce the chance of infections.

Our school only has a part-time nurse; she’s shared with several area elementary schools. We have one full-time counselor who serves our student body of more than 700 kids. I worry that won’t be enough given the trauma so many students have experienced these past several months. I’m sure we will need more custodians to complete the deep, thorough and constant cleaning required to keep everyone safe.

And if we continue with either part-time or full-time distance learning, we need to do it better. Educators struggled this spring to reach students, particularly low-income students, students of color, English language learners and students with individual education plans. We need resources to ensure every student has the technology access and learning they need. And our districts need to work with educators to ensure quality professional development that addresses how to most effectively teach online.

The Monroe Education Association is at the table with our school district to negotiate these key safety issues. We want nothing more than to have schools open this fall, but we won’t do that at the expense of health and safety. We know we all need childcare so we can continue doing our jobs, whether that’s as educators or anything else, but not at the cost of lives lost to COVID.

School districts need to listen to educators, parents and scientists and make sure we go back to school in a way that serves everyone. We have to find a solution that is founded on scientific fact. We have to stop getting stuck on what we already know and understand about the current education system and think bigger and better. We have to work and think creatively on how to best serve our students while keeping everyone safe. Rushing to open is reckless and comes with too dear a cost.

Pamela Sepúlveda Wilson is an English Language Learning instructor in Monroe and Washington Education Association Board of Directors executive committee member.

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