The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has released an 87-page guidance for reopening K-12 schools this fall. The responsibility and plans for reopening actually falls to each individual public school district or private school, but the DPI offered a wide array of options for how to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 while still educating kids.
Before getting into the details a bit on what schools could, and should, do to reopen, we must pause and come to agreement on a few underlying facts. First, while COVID-19 can be deadly for older people and those with underlying health conditions, it is exceedingly rare for people under the age of 20 to die from it. Far more of our children die from suicide, drug overdoses, traffic accidents, diarrheal diseases, cancer, or heart disease than from COVID-19. That is not to say that kids will not have serious complications or be carriers of the disease, but they are not at a high risk of dying from it. The school staff, however, are in a different risk category.
Second, education is a priority. This has become even clearer as we see wave after wave of ignorance-fueled hate wash over our communities. Education is a cure to a lot of social ills including bigotry, hubris, and avarice. Education is not only a well-trod path for individual success, it is the prerequisite for an advanced civilization. Some may have forgotten or ignored the importance of education in the panic over COVID-19, but we must not lose sight of it again. COVID-19 will be here forevermore and we may never have a vaccine. We must not let it lead to the abandonment of our kids’ education.
As schools get back to their mission this September, the DPI provides a number of different scenarios to consider depending on the grade level. These options include a four-day week, a two-day rotation, and a two-week rotation — all of which would be supplemented and supported by distance learning techniques and robust parental support. All of these options are designed to limit the number of kids in the school buildings and the time they spend there. What is conspicuously missing from the DPI’s guidance is a traditional five-day, in-person school week.
If there is anything we learned from the last few months in education, it is that for most kids, classroom teaching is the most effective way of delivering education. Some did great at distance learning, but many kids were left behind. And for some school districts, those kids were intentionally left behind as teachers failed to adapt to a different education delivery style.
Even in the Slinger School District, which was reputedly one of the districts that successfully pivoted to distance learning, a district survey revealed that 51.7% of respondents said their kids spent less than two hours a day learning. An overwhelming 76.1% of respondents are in favor of returning to a traditional, in-classroom learning environment.
School Districts throughout the state should get back to the business of educating kids on a full-time basis. There will need to be some reasonable changes to mitigate the spread of disease, whether it is COVID-19 or something else. Rigorous sanitation, routine hand washing, masks where appropriate, and quickly sending sick kids and staff members home should become the norm, but so should rigorous and routine education.
Also, accommodations must be made for kids and staff members who are at a higher risk by providing real distance learning alternatives. This does not mean broadcasting a class that is usually delivered in the classroom and sending some worksheets. This means designing education specifically to be delivered remotely. There are already several online public and private schools in Wisconsin that do a phenomenal job educating kids who learn better outside of the classroom. Wisconsin must learn from these schools, amplify their success, and waive restrictions to allow kids to transfer into those schools immediately.
Wisconsinites invest a tremendous amount of money, time, and effort into our K-12 education system precisely because we believe in the necessity and promise of education. It is past time for them to get back to doing the work our kids deserve.
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