Here’s a conversation I overhead in my New York City apartment building this week: “Mom, are we going back to school after Christmas break?”
The parent sighed, shrugged and gave away nothing, because there is no certainty at all, not anywhere, really.
Remote learning has serious drawbacks; researchers have already warned that devastating achievement disparities that are only worsening. Covid denial in parts of the country and challenges to mask mandates can make school feel dangerous, with the omicron variant surging (618 percent in NYC during the last two weeks) and pediatric Covid related hospitalizations on the rise. In one Maine elementary school alone, the transmission rate rose to 70 percent before Christmas.
Still, while more children are being hospitalized, the number who become seriously ill is lower than expected compared with past surges, because omicron appears to be less severe. Pediatricians nationally are urging parents to send their children back to school. Educators, politicians and health experts overwhelmingly say keeping schools open must be the main priority.
Dozens of school districts have nonetheless decided they must revert instead to remote learning this week. Those returning in person are handing out rapid test kits, upgrading masks and relying on proof of negative tests or shortened quarantine times for those who test positive to keep both kids and staff in school.
So what does all this uncertainty mean as we contemplate the dark month of January? Here we go. Again.
The only thing we can count on as schools scramble to reopen safely is more anxiety. Questions about what reopening safely means and how schools will try to keep Covid at bay so that kids can keep learning remain impossibly fraught nearly two years into the pandemic. There may be no satisfying answers, no easy solutions and no decisions without consequences.
“Everyone is in the same wait-and-see place,” Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor in Washington D.C. and author of the book Middle School Matters, told me Sunday from the parking lot of her school where she was getting tested for Covid in advance of in-person returning this week.
“I’m not convinced this break was enough to help restore anyone’s well-being, in part because much of it has been consumed by conjecture about what lies ahead,” Fagell told me.
Whether your school is remote or in person, Fagell is urging a little extra kindness, support and compassion. She’s worried for students whose routines and rituals have been thrown into chaos for nearly two years, for parents experiencing more disruption and isolation, and for educators who were feeling depleted even before a holiday break.
“All of us are slightly anxious,” Jim Maloney, chief operating officer of Cambridge Public Schools told the Boston Globe. In Massachusetts, state officials reported nearly 8,600 new cases among public school students and 1,600 among staff before Christmas week, a 20 percent jump from the prior week. Remote learning is prohibited in the state, so schools will open in person, albeit with some delays and additional testing.
Nationwide, no age group is being spared. College students in many cases will be remaining remote, at least for the beginning of their spring semester, even as concern for their mental health grows. Meantime, parents of the youngest children, who haven’t been vaccinated, must weigh whether it’s safe to place them in child care. (A federal judge in Louisiana on Sunday blocked a White House requirement that all Head Start workers be vaccinated in early education programs.)
As the pandemic drags on, I looked back on some of our reporting at The Hechinger Report, searching for lessons about overcoming fear, learning loss and pandemic malaise from research, while looking for hopeful signs on how to deal with the months — and, possibly, years — of disruption and stress ahead.
I remembered a column I wrote early on, about the little acts of kindness that helped so many shocked students and parents cope. As hard as it is to face a third year of the Covid pandemic, we must also look to and embrace the powerful lessons we’ve learned so far about the state of our schools and what it might take to save them and help our kids through the next rocky months:
- We learned lots of new ways to help our littlest learners cope with disruption they can’t understand or articulate.
- Educators also learned a lot from months of remote learning; not least, the importance of children’s social and emotional wellbeing and the role schools can play to support kids through difficult times.
- Long simmering inequities got new attention, including the urgency of the “homework gap” and gaps in reading and math achievement, even as ideas for closing those gaps gained momentum, including training teachers to personalize learning for each student and assigning tutors to the kids who fell behind.
- The pandemic also forced a reckoning about the physical condition of America’s classrooms and may have cleared a way for the federal government to rebuild them.
- And some schools have managed to safely reopen: They kept Covid cases down compared to their surrounding communities while keeping kids learning mostly in person.
Even in Hechinger’s reporting on the tragedy the pandemic unleashed, I found countless examples of courage and resiliency. Spending time with masked, joyful children during the holidays left me invigorated and hopeful; it helped me realize that in the dark and frightening days ahead, we must find ways to rebound, stay positive and support our stressed-out educators – and one another.
That’s something Fagell emphasized as well.
“No matter how adults are feeling, it’s hugely important to find a hopeful path forward, and to remind students that even though it may not feel like it, the pandemic won’t last indefinitely,” Fagell told me. “As hopeless as some of these micro-moments feel, it isn’t forever.”
This story about coronavirus and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter