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Should schools reopen amid the pandemic? If so, how to do so safely?

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 8/2/2020 By Editorial Board, and The Plain Dealer,
a person riding on the back of a school bus: Elementary students from Broadway Academy charter school leave school in March; later that month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine closed all Ohio schools as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. DeWine is allowing schools to reopen this fall but leaving it up to districts to decide how to do so. © Lisa DeJong/Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer/ Elementary students from Broadway Academy charter school leave school in March; later that month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine closed all Ohio schools as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. DeWine is allowing schools to reopen this fall but leaving it up to districts to decide how to do so.

Many Northeast Ohio school systems are planning to start school this month. Others, like the Lorain schools, have put it off till September. But it looks increasingly like most of those school reopenings will not involve in-person classes. And this week, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health recommended that all schools in the county start with remote instruction, citing the number of COVID-19 cases, the state’s high positivity rate from testing and potential gaps in the ability to test children.

The Cleveland schools already had announced a plan to open with remote learning for the first nine weeks, after a majority of polled district parents said they were uncomfortable sending their kids back to school. An intensive push to expand wifi access and internet connectivity in Cleveland is underway, but Cleveland schools officials know that, for some students, a chaotic home life already makes it hard to learn -- while research suggests that younger students in particular are handicapped in learning online.

Some parents are creating Pandemic Pods -- small groups of children where parents take turns reinforcing lessons in person. But mostly that seems a phenomenon of the suburbs, where schools may also have the resources to space students and learning times.

Are we seeing in real time another way in which disadvantaged children will be further handicapped in their quest for education because of the pandemic?

Meantime, many Ohio teachers are alarmed by the prospect of teaching in a room full of germy and potentially virus-laden kids, with stark evidence already during this pandemic of how one infected person in an enclosed space can infect scores. The state’s largest teachers union has asked the state to require remote learning in “red” and “purple” pandemic counties -- currently, that includes Cuyahoga and Medina counties.

Yet practical considerations also seem to be driving decisions in a state that doesn’t want to close down again -- with Gov. DeWine lifting the order that had limited day care numbers starting Aug. 9.

The state is largely leaving the decision on how to reopen to local school districts, but do most local schools have credible plans to reopen or are most -- along with parents, kids and teachers -- still trying to figure out how to do so safely, potentially careening toward big trouble?

So what does our editorial board roundtable think? Should Ohio issue clearer rules for reopening schools? Is it safe for any to reopen? What should be the minimum safety precautions school systems should take? And how to overcome the inevitable educational inequities for this generation of students denied months and maybe longer of traditional schooling?

Ted Diadiun, columnist:

This is a problem with no satisfactory solution short of an effective vaccine. Remote classes work only with attentive, motivated students. That’ll be difficult enough with attentive, motivated parents overseeing things; nearly impossible where parents are not invested or involved. But forcing teachers and students back together into enclosed rooms is not the answer, either.

Thomas Suddes, editorial writer:

Schools should do, must do, what is safe, or closer to safe than not, for pupils. The larger problem is the challenge working parents face if schools stay (physically) closed: If day care isn’t available, parents are stuck, and family budgets damaged. People love their children, but they also need to feed them.

Mary Cay Doherty, editorial board member:

Students need to be in school. A hybrid in-person and online schedule balances learning with sensible precautions. Masks, social distancing, hand-washing, and cleaning protocols will help keep people healthy. Offer high-risk students and teachers a “remote only” option. Yes, coronavirus can be deadly but not for most people under 65. Facts must temper fear.

Lisa Garvin, editorial board member:

Reopening schools is crucial for children and parents, but I fear for the safety of educators forced to work in an unsafe environment. I have little faith that lower-income school districts will get funding to defray the significant cost of protective equipment, remote technology, and modifications. It’s a no-win situation with heart-breaking repercussions either way.

Victor Ruiz, editorial board member:

I do not envy school-district superintendents as they struggle to make the best decisions. The most important thing is that, as a society, we need to provide our children with the education and wraparound support they need. If we do not, they and us, will fall further behind.

Elizabeth Sullivan, director of opinion:

With the virus still raging, now is not the time to send kids back to school in person. Yes, this will hurt lower-income students, and create terrible dilemmas for parents who may be forced to send their children to day cares with possibly inadequate COVID-19 precautions. That means we must fight all the harder to fix Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding system so all kids have a fighting chance at educational equality.

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