Should We Open Our Schools?

By Carrie Sampson

First, let me position myself. I am a mother of two school-aged children, an incoming kindergarten and third grader. I am an educator. As a faculty member at Arizona State University, I teach and research educational equity, leadership, and policy. I am mixed-race, with Latinx and Black heritage, born and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona in a trailer park off Lake Mary Road. I have a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s in education, and a PhD in public affairs. I, along with my spouse, rely heavily on schools to care for our children while we work full-time.

Will we be sending our children to school in-person this Fall? NO. Arizona has become the epicenter for COVID-19. Today, as I write this, Arizona has 138,553 confirmed cases of COVID-19. This equates to 21,373 cases per 1 million, surpassing New York (21,037 per 1 million) for the highest proportion of confirmed cases (The COVID Tracking Project). I think our state reopened too soon and failed to place necessary mandates that could have protected people from contracting COVID-19. Moreover, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities are disproportionately represented at the higher numbers in these confirmed cases and the deaths from COVID-19. Also, many BIPOC communities live in multigenerational households and rely on our extended families. Even for myself, my mother lives with us and we have several family members nearby- many of whom are considered high-risk because of their age and health status.

Even before COVID-19, schools were cesspools of germs with children playing together, sharing food, and sneezing in each other’s face. I applaud school and district leaders who are expending enormous efforts in planning to reopen schools safely, developing policies to limit exposure and minimize risk. But let’s be honest. Will children really be able to remain 6 feet from their friends, sit far enough on the bus ride to school, refrain from sharing their crackers, and vigorously wash their hands for 20 seconds? I doubt it. And what will happen when, not if, some in the school contract COVID-19?

I have been serving on the reopening taskforce for my children’s school. Their plan includes mandatory masks or face shields for staff and optional masks for students unless required by the city or county. Students will undergo daily temperature screens even though many children are asymptomatic, sit more than 3 feet apart at lunch even though health officials recommend social distancing be 6 feet apart with masks, and not be allowed to socialize in a group of more than 10 students at recess which essentially dismisses the mask and social distancing recommendations for avoiding exposure to COVID-19.

Families are torn about what to do. Some, like me, will not send their children to schools. Some refuse to put masks on their children. Others want a hybrid option so their children can have social interaction. And still others need support because they have no option to work from home or perhaps their child has special needs that require in-person instruction. Teachers and staff are also torn. Some feel an obligation to serve their students in-person. Others, given all the uncertainties, feel like they are being sent to a warzone. And many have decided to retire early or quit.

Right now, we need courageous leadership to make the tough decisions that will prioritize the safety and well-being of our communities. We are in the middle of a pandemic. There will be an endpoint. We will find a vaccine. And countries like New Zealand, which implemented a strict shutdown, have already been victorious as they are reporting only 1 or 2 new cases a day. We can and will beat this. But we must come together — schools, districts, county and city officials, and most importantly our youth, families, and broader communities — to act collectively for our communities, our elders, and our future generations.

Opening schools in-person is not safe for the collective good of our communities. While I, along with my healthy children and spouse, will likely survive COVID-19 if exposed, my mother, my aunts and uncles, and those who live with pre-existing conditions are less likely. And our actions to either protect or not protect those among us who are most vulnerable will remain in our children’s minds and hearts for generations to come. Families that have the option to keep their children home, should. For those families without that option, schools must build partnerships in neighborhoods, and with community organizations, churches, and higher education institutions to create safe pods of children who can be sufficiently cared for.

And all this does not mean that learning stops. We have the option of virtual learning, which is not ideal, but far outweighs putting our families at-risk, and the trauma of witnessing our students, families, teachers, and staff getting sick and some even dying from COVID-19. Instead of putting time and resources into planning a “safe” in-person reopening of schools, I urge leaders — schools, districts, counties, cities, and families – to shift the focus to increasing our technological capacity for online learning. We must ensure all children have adequate equipment and access. Finally, let’s see this as an opportunity to set aside standards and accountability, which research shows does not equate to quality learning. Instead, let’s think about how we can embrace the learning that is happening constantly. Our kids learn through the stories our elders tell us, the card games they play with siblings, and the forts they build out of blankets. Let’s ask ourselves, how might schools broaden their view of learning, and adopt a more humanizing and culturally responsive understanding of teaching? Learning can, and is, happening outside of schools, whether in our homes or online. And now, with platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live, we have access to individuals, communities, and information like never before.

Let’s leverage this opportunity. And leverage what our families and communities have to offer. Let us prioritize our collective humanity over our individual selves by keeping schools closed but learning open. This might just be the blessing in disguise that many of us have long hoped for.

Note: This article was included in this month’s issue of our LatinX Voter Committee Newsletter.

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