Opening schools defies science — and common sense

With so many other (reasonable and necessary) restrictions, it’s hard to explain how kids (and teachers and parents) will be safe with in-school instruction

By Tom Bergeron
New Jersey | Jul 9, 2020 at 4:34 am
Editor’s Desk

Gov. Phil Murphy had all the data, science and good old health care common sense on his side when he put a pause on indoor dining last week and when he mandated face coverings outdoors this week.

COVID-19 is anything but contained — as the rest of the country is showing. And the arrival of a therapeutic or a vaccine is still so far off that few are willing to even make a best-guess estimate.

We agree with his cautious approach here at ROI-NJ.

There’s just one thing we don’t understand: Why is the state planning on opening our schools this fall?

It defies science. Even more, it defies common sense.

If “indoor, sedentary, poor ventilation” are strong reasons to block indoor dining — why are they good for schools?

If having young people who don’t fear COVID-19 gathering closely outdoors is a recipe to create super-spreaders, kids who unwillingly and unknowingly pass the virus to their older and more susceptible relatives (or teachers) — why are we creating such scenarios in schools?

If walking down a boardwalk without a mask is a serious health risk, why would we think schoolkids will proceed with caution when walking down the (indoor) halls in their schools?

It doesn’t make sense. And it’s putting the heads of our schools — the best public schools in the country — in a quandary.

They could be devoting their time to creating the best remote learning experience possible — a setup we are certain to need this year and likely will need in the years ahead. Instead, they have to prepare for dozens of scenarios, all of which almost certainly lead to one outcome: a return to virtual learning before the year is out.

It’s an exercise in futility. But don’t take our word for it. Listen to Mackey Pendergrast, the chief education officer of the Morris School District, who was selected as the state’s 2020 Superintendent of the Year by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

“The idea that New Jersey is immune from this coming back is not supported by science,” he said. “I think everyone is anticipating we’re going to be back to all-virtual at some time during the school year.

“Right now, we’re trying to prepare for both things at once.”

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Consider the challenges that schools face:

Financial: Think of the extra costs that will come with the acquisition of personal protective equipment, modifing classrooms and buses — and extra bus runs. This is big dollars. And Pendergrast points out there are financial rules that restrict schools from using certain monies (such as those in capital reserves) on PPE.

Logistical: How do you teach a class where some students are there and some are online, a situation necessitated by reduced capacity?

Personnel: Many schools, especially high schools, have numerous teachers in their second career. This normally is a huge plus, but some of those teachers now are considered high-risk. The same will hold true for much of the normal pool of substitutes.

Morris School District
Morris School District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast.

Yes, Pendergrast already is thinking about this. He’s wondering if teachers who do not feel comfortable in a classroom could teach virtually, with an assistant in the classroom. And he said he’s planning on making a push to build a much younger substitute pool.

And for what purpose?

The idea that we’re sending our kids back to school so parents can return to work and restart the economy doesn’t hold up. For starters, many parents are not going back to the office anytime soon. And, secondly, there are no scenarios where all students are back all the time.

Remote learning is going to be a reality for many students — perhaps even the majority of students — every day.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not blind to the fact that many parents cannot work from home, that many kids do not have the proper devices and are at homes that are not equipped with the appropriate broadband access.

There also are the challenges facing one-parent households — and those whose households are run by extended family.

More than anything, I personally know the challenges that kids with special needs present — and how the in-class support they receive is so vital to their social and emotional growth, as well as their academic progress.

And, as a father of five, I also understand how having your kids in your home all day impacts the mental health of both the adults and the kids.

But this is the situation we’re facing.

It’s a pandemic that has led to stay-at-home orders, restrictions on virtually every activity, quarantines, remote holidays and graduations and mask wearing — both indoors and out.

It’s a pandemic that has led to more than 15,000 deaths in this state.

Pendergrast knows this as well as anyone. The first day of school in the Morris School District may very well be marked with a moment of silence for the staffer who succumbed to COVID-19 earlier this spring.

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So, why is it that we’re sending kids back to school again?

Does anyone really think kids are going to wear masks all day — and wear them correctly? What about in schools that struggle with proper heating and cooling?

Can we see the data that drove the decision on this one?

Can we see the science that has made state officials say that the noted COVID-19 expert, President Donald Trump, is correct in his push to have kids return to in-class learning? And the science that says Princeton University is wrong to go with almost entirely remote learning?

(Our bet is on Princeton.)

There are leaders such as Pendergrast across the state that will find a way to make this work. After all, these are the teams that managed to transition to remote learning in a matter of weeks last spring.

They had no choice then. And they have no choice now.

While Murphy reiterated Wednesday that school districts have significant amount of latitude to adjust their reopening plans to meet their situation, that latitude does not include the option to keep students home for one more semester — or until some type of vaccine or therapeutic is discovered.

The clock is ticking. Districts seemingly have to have their plans complete by the end of July, giving them a month to introduce them to the school community and make preparations for their implementation.

We think it’s a fool’s errand. We wonder if schools will make it even a month or two until there’s an outbreak. And by outbreak, ask yourself what you’re going to do when you find there is even once case of COVID-19 in your kid’s school.

Schools, after all, are no match for COVID-19 — a virus that Murphy said Wednesday is “dramatically more lethal” indoors compared to outdoors.

“We just can’t ignore that fact — and we can’t ignore the fact that our rate of transmission has gone up,” he said. “We can’t ignore the fact that the virus is exploding in other states right now, and we’ll do everything we can, but, at a certain point, remember public health creates economic health.

“We cannot jump the gun nor transpose those steps.”

He was talking about indoor dining and the need to wear a mask, but the question needs to be asked: Doesn’t the same rationale hold true for schools?

Read more from ROI-NJ on coronavirus: