Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing our communities as we deal with surging cases of COVID-19 is what we should do about sending our children back to school this fall.
There are many ever-changing unknowns that affect these decisions. First, of course, is the safety of our children and their teachers. From there, the concerns ripple out. With so many things unknown, delaying the opening while providing virtual leaning to students seems prudent if not mandatory. Our local leaders are working diligently to determine what path is best. What is not a wise approach is President Donald Trump demanding that schools reopen, threatening those that don’t with federal funding cuts to their budgets.
As The New York Times has reported, Trump is pressuring state and local officials to open schools this fall, calling the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines on reopening “expensive and impractical.” What did the CDC recommend? CDC Director Robert Redfield said the guidelines include “keeping students six feet apart, wearing face coverings and looking at changes in schedule.” Those seem reasonable minimums for students returning to in-person instruction in classrooms, particularly when 39 states currently have rising numbers of coronavirus infections.
Another punch to the gut for many parents and PTA officials was U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos changing her tune — from being open to children learning remotely or virtually, to heartily backing Trump and flagrantly insulting concerned educators. “This moment demands actions, not excuse-making or fear-mongering,” said DeVos, insinuating that educators are overthinking the risks. But the risks to our children are very real, as noted by CDC Director Redfield when he said, as paraphrased by Politico: “Reopening plans should minimize the risk of COVID-19 while providing students the critical services. … And plans should anticipate that COVID cases ‘will in fact occur.’ ”
The ongoing indifference from the White House has increased friction between the administration and our nation’s educators. Politico reported on a statement released by teachers unions, the PTA, special education administrators and secondary school principals, who expressed: “Throughout this pandemic, the administration has failed to address the needs of students, especially those students who need the most support. They have failed to listen to families and public school educators who have been on the frontlines serving their communities.”
Educators are having a hard time reconciling being “forced” to send children and students back to school when every day more people are dying from coronavirus. It is not difficult to see why educators are struggling to find a safe and manageable means of teaching our children, especially in a world where some have turned safety issues into partisan issues.
Yes, people are sick of rules. But if we don’t comply with safety protocols, more of us will get sick, more of us will die. What’s more, increased cases will undoubtedly lead to further state and city shutdowns — something our economy likely can’t take. In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott has mandated statewide mask-wearing, saying: “I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown.” He went on: “If we do not all join together and unite in this one cause for a short period of time of adopting the masks, it will lead to the necessity of having to close Texas back down.”
Like Texas, we all need to join together and “unite in this one cause” — that of wearing masks and staying apart for a “short period of time” so that we can remain open. We’ve all seen what it does to our economy to close. Imagine if it becomes mandated to stay in our homes for a more extended period of time, when it could have been avoided by wearing masks and maintaining proper distancing while going almost anywhere we wish. Also, like Texas, our state is seeing increased cases of the virus. On July 8, Tennessee health officials reported a record 2,472 new cases of coronavirus and 20 additional deaths — with more projected. These numbers make it very difficult for those in charge of our children’s education and safety to make popular decisions.
Thankfully, and even under pressure from the president, Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Dr. Adrienne Battle has decided to allow Nashville students to start the school year with virtual classes. Doing so allows students to return to gaining their education, with attendance required and grades administered. There are challenges, but Dr. Battle and the school board are working to keep our children safe. Dr. Battle said one reason for delaying in-person attendance in the fall — at least until Labor Day — is because: “Our nation has not prioritized the steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We have not had our national priorities focused on that goal.”
Dr. Battle is right.
With the absence of presidential and national leadership, state and local leaders are taking the lead — and sometimes the heat. Trump didn’t wear a mask in public until July 11, when he visited wounded servicemembers and their families at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — where it was a requirement. No wonder many people are bucking the rules, likely thinking, “If the president doesn’t follow them, why should I?”
Until we as a nation, including our president, make COVID-19 safety a priority, we will suffer.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.