OPINION

The CP Edit: C is for COVID

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School bells are beginning to ring across mid-Michigan, but not in a way we’ve ever heard before. With no small amount of trepidation on the part of students, parents and educators, and with the coronavirus potentially lurking behind every sniffle, many area schools have wisely opted to begin the year in all-virtual mode.

A number of area schools have adopted a hybrid approach, which allows students to choose between in-person instruction and distance learning. Others, like Lansing Catholic High School, brought students back to the classroom this week for full face-to-face instruction. The school says its decision is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Association of Pediatrics, both of which issued statements supporting in-person instruction so long as appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the health of students and staff.

Keeping kids at home is the surest path to avoiding COVID outbreaks among students, teachers and other school personnel. Even though school-age children are not especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, we know almost nothing about the long-term effects on their health. It is all but certain that the virus will also find its way home to parents, grandparents and siblings, with potentially devastating consequences.

That’s why teachers in many school districts across the nation are pushing back. Numerous lawsuits have been filed to stop in-school instruction due to the perceived health risks. In Florida, where the governor ordered schools to reopen for in-person instruction and threatened financial penalties for failure to comply, teachers successfully sued to halt the plan. The case is now pending on appeal.

The prospect of reopening schools for in-person instruction while the coronavirus still rages presents an enormous challenge for educators. It’s a bold experiment not only in managing a public health crisis, but in the viability and efficacy of virtual instruction itself. Will it work? We’re about to find out.

We’re most impressed with the Lansing School District’s return-to-school strategy. Under the leadership of Superintendent Sam Sinicropi and LSD Board President Gabrielle Lawrence, the district has developed a well-crafted, comprehensive plan for virtual learning that will protect children, their families and school staff. Teachers will be in their classrooms as usual, but students will engage virtually with their instructors for part of the day and complete self-paced assignments at other times.

The district also partnered with community organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, Impression 5 Science Center and Woldumar Nature Center to establish “learning labs,” where students can safely partake in a variety of in-person educational activities under adult supervision. The labs are designed to provide support for working parents who may not be able to stay home during the day to supervise their children. Current enrollment capacity is just 600 out of the district’s 11,000 students, but LSD is looking for additional partners to expand the program.

For an urban district where the vast majority of students qualify for federally subsidized lunches due to poverty, technology-based education presents a unique set of hurdles that must also be overcome. Economically challenged families are less likely to have computers or Internet access — the essential tools of online learning. LSD is working hard to overcome the digital divide by providing Chromebooks to every student who needs one at no cost, and working with families and broadband providers to ensure the availability of broadband service in the home.

Critics argue that even the most carefully crafted plan for virtual education is inferior to in-person instruction. They argue that children’s social development and mental health will suffer greatly from the lack of face-to-face interaction with their instructors and peers. These concerns are not unfounded, but most young people we know don’t seem to have any trouble watching a screen all day, as long as it involves playing a game or watching Tik Tok videos. Formal instruction is likely to be far less engaging and teachers certainly have their work cut out for them to keep kids’ attention. But school-age children are more adaptable and resilient than we often give them credit for, so we’re confident that distance learning will be a success. School leaders need to be vigilant, though, to ensure that virtual education doesn’t widen the achievement gap for students from economically disadvantaged families.

Taken together, this year’s back-to-school strategies strike us as a massive science experiment, with children, teachers and their families as the test subjects. On balance, we strongly favor distance learning, at least for now, to mitigate the health risks for everyone involved in the education enterprise. Better to be safe than to learn the hard way that C stands for COVID.

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