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Going ‘back’ to school is taking a toll on an entire generation of students

If the U.S. now was pandemic-free, parents would be taking their children to places like Staples, piling up on tons of back-to-school supplies. They’d be going on last-minute vacations, maybe touring another country or chilling somewhere near a lake, with friends and family and good vibes abound. 

And although feeling bittersweet about the summer’s end, they’d be fervently awaiting their children’s return to the classroom. Well, these are new times we are living in. New times that show just how little much of the country cares for working-class parents and educators, and naturally even students.

Thinking about all of the good — seemingly olden — days, feels irresistibly upsetting. It’s upsetting for the parents who, while juggling their own jobs or fighting to secure unemployment benefits, have assumed upon themselves additional tasks: like making sure their children are actually learning online.

It’s upsetting for the teachers who, while also trying to be there for their families, worry about their students falling behind academically. 

And it’s upsetting that an entire generation, while living amid America’s gun violence crisis, frightening global warming prognoses, and social unrest and economic downfall and political disarray, has a foundation as fundamental as education rid from their grasp.

But there’s little that the federal and state governments, regardless of how much they preach about the futures of today’s children, are able to do to do to bolster the safe reopening of schools or at least to assist teachers and counselors in their adjustment to online instruction. 

A federal relief package passed in March only offered $13.5 billion for K-12 education. That made up only one percent of the full aid, if not less, since education secretary Betsy DeVos wants that money to be shared with private and religious schools.

90 percent of American students rely on the public school system.

Private schools have historically been more flexible, have had smaller class sizes and a greater budget for hiring more staff members and renovating their ventilating system to ensure healthy filtration throughout the buildings.

As this report suggests, an average public school district of about 3,700 students would need to spend an extra $1.8 million to take safety measurements and keep the virus under control.

All of that, even if incredibly necessary, takes away from investing money into catch-up programs and tools for equal access to the internet and technology, a disadvantage that causes a deeper widening of the gap between the rich and the poor.

The government has decided to bail out airline companies and banks, but when it comes to public school, economic goals seem to overshadow that of public health.

While it’s important to save the economy (a recession was long feared since the beginning of the lockdown), it’s equally as imperative to stop threatening the cutting of funds to public school districts that cannot fully reopen, if at all. 

Epidemiologists suggest that to contain the coronavirus, the daily infection rate within a community should not exceed five percent, but eight of the nation’s ten largest school districts belong to counties that have passed beyond that threshold — by about four times.

Only New York City and Chicago seem to have things under more control, with the former having the lowest rate of all, at around two percent.

Although that five percent metric wasn’t established particularly for the ongoing decisions on whether or not to reopen schools, it’s one on which public health experts have agreed.

The ideal rate is under three percent, but even ten percent or less would indicate a control of the virus. Of course, to accurately consistently monitor that rate in school communities would require there to be an adequate amount of testing, which has also, since the beginning of the pandemic, been lacking.

In a recent survey, however, for the Rasmussen Reports, 57% of elementary- and-secondary school parents said that they want their children to return to the classrooms, and they believe that the cons of staying home outweigh the pros. 

Health and education officials who are for reopening also argue that the tens of millions of children in the nation’s schools are not likely to contract and spread the virus; the social and psychological aspect of their development is, they say, under much dire threat.

Children rely on stability, as scholars like Herbert W. Marsh, Rhonda Craven, and Raymond Debus claim in their research on young people’s development. 

A regular day at school provides a routine that young minds are otherwise unable to yet contrive for themselves without, oftentimes, a little push in the right direction. That routine ensures a sense of productiveness, learning and retention and it encourages discipline on every level of social and psychological development.

Experts say that while younger children, whose goals are to be closer to their caregivers,  and teenagers might not experience as much of a hurdle and eventually build resiliency, they are most concerned for tweens, who are just learning how to socialize with their peers, leaping into their desires for independence from their parents and forming their own perspectives and identities. 

Many pediatricians recommend a reopening of schools, and educators are finding themselves under an enormous pressure to keep to their professional obligations in-person.

Occupational and speech therapists, counselors and psychologists are, too, understandably in demand.

What is overlooked now is not only that tweens are suffering developmentally, but more specifically, it’s those with special needs, those who grow and thrive in environments where social information feels tangible and not disembodied, hardly tractable through a screen.

The number of special ed students is on the rise. In 2015-2016, there were 6.7 million across the American school system.

But teachers and their unions also have legitimate arguments, one of which maintains that if education were indeed a priority, they’d be, by this time, given a more concrete plan.

The CDC guidelines for a safe return to classrooms, if schools decide to open, were just released, though it all feels inconclusive.

What to do if a student or a teacher gets the virus? Will there be regular temperature checks? Is it a question of if or when someone contracts the virus? How big of an outbreak within a school community qualifies for the re-cancellation of in-person classes?

With fewer educators willing to risk their lives (around one-quarter of public school teachers are over fifty and one-fourth of them are at risk for serious illnesses if infected with COVID-19), and more going on medical exemptions, the feat of reopening school becomes difficult and uncertain.

Public school staffing is lagging behind, but so are many teachers’ financial circumstances and parents’ assurance that their children are, indeed, learning.

The excitement shared amongst families at the start of a new academic year is amiss these days. And it’s incredibly hard to say what feels right: to stay away from classrooms or to go back.