Allow MNPS Children to Choose In-person Learning
This is an open letter expressing extreme disappointment with the decision by MNPS to begin school remotely without an in-person option. While we know the decision was not made lightly, there are several factors that lead it to be damaging to our children, families, and community as outlined below.
Please note that this letter in no way passes any judgement on families who choose the remote option full-time. Every family must be allowed to make a decision that meets their specific needs, and there are many reasons parents will choose to keep their children at home. They have been promised that choice since the June 23rd announcement. However, you will also see there are compelling, persuasive reasons for families to return to school as well.
From the CDC: On July 9th, the Director of the CDC Robert Redfield stated, “I’m of the point of view of a public health leader in this nation that having the schools actually closed is a greater public health threat to the children than having the schools reopen.” He further stated that “I think really people underestimate the public health consequences of having the schools closed on the kids” and “I am confident we can open these schools safely.”
Further, on July 8th, Redfield stated that the CDC guidelines to reopen schools should not be used as an excuse for not returning children to classrooms. “Remember, it’s guidance, not requirements, and its purpose is to facilitate the reopening and keeping open the schools in this country. Redfield has said “we’re prepared to work with each school or each school district.”
From the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and The School Superintendents Association (AASA): “We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replaced online. Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.”
The organizations further state that “local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools.” However, parents seem to have been left out of this decision as 40% responded that they preferred in-person learning when surveyed by MNPS. Another 34% stated they wanted a hybrid option with children in school on a staggered schedule. This means almost 3/4 of parents want their children physically in school. Where was the parent voice in this decision?
Additionally, other public health experts in addition to the CDC have urged children to be in school. An article in Pediatrics stated that “serious consideration should be paid towards strategies that allow schools to remain open, even during periods of COVID-19 spread” as models show that community-wide social distancing and widespread adoption of face coverings are far better strategies for controlling disease spread, and that closing school adds little.
Further, the AAP feels strongly enough to advise that strict adherence to distance and class sizes should not trump being in-person for learning.
Other Factors for Consideration
1. Inequality – According to research done by the Education Equity Index, “Nashville’s achievement gap between students from low-income communities and their more advantaged peers is larger than 75 percent of the nation’s 100 biggest cities.” It has been estimated that the achievement gap will increase by 18% for low income families in a virtual learning environment (achieve3000.com) That is if students can access the learning at all - MNPS estimates only 44,000 laptops will be available for student use at the start of school when enrollment is 86,000, and 20% of homes do not have access to the internet. Hotspots, which can be spotty, will eventually be available, but how much time will have been lost? There will be children left behind, and they will be the children whose families cannot purchase equipment or access the internet, the very children we are supposed to be lifting up.
Parents do not view school as a babysitter, but the fact is that many families cannot return to work with children at home. They are forced with hard choices on being able to pay rent or leaving children unattended during the day (with a laptop and access to the internet…..when available). Not every parent has the flexibility to work from home, and those who cannot work remotely are often facing the most economic uncertainty. Some have started to call this difference “Corona Privilege.”
Finally, since the announcement that MNPS will be remote through at least Labor Day, many Independent Schools have reassured parents they will be returning in person. This means the only children with the option for in-person learning in Davidson County are those who can pay for it. This is deeply disturbing and will only continue to widen the inequality gap. It puts the very families who need the most resources at a disadvantage.
2. Health of the children: The AAP also points out that current guidance on school closures is based on what we know about the transmission of the flu. While children are susceptible to catching and spreading the flu, the same has not been observed with Covid. According to Pediatrics author Dr. Raszka, “The data are striking….after six months, we have a wealth of accumulating data showing that children are less likely to become infected and seem less infectious.”
Data from the CDC shows that Covid cases in children make up only 2% of total cases, although children comprise 22% of the total population. Additionally, CDC data shows that as of July 8, 29 children in the United States have died from Covid in the year 2020 while 100 have died from the flu. While we don’t want to lose a single child, the reality is that Covid is not as detrimental to children as to vulnerable populations (and schools remain open during flu season with little outcry from the community).
A July 10 Medscape study revealed that “unlike with other viral respiratory infections, children do not seem to be a major vector of <Covid> transmission, with most pediatric cases described inside familial clusters and no documentation of child-to-child or child-to-adult transmission.”
Additionally, MNPS has touted “Community Partners” to help care for children who can’t be in school. Are we saying it’s ok for children to be together with these partners, just not together in school?
3. Transmission from student to teacher –According the Pediatrics article, studies in France, New South Wales, and two in China show extremely low to zero transmission. An NPR story revealed that in New York City, the Department of Education cared for more than 10,000 children of essential workers. While a few staff members and parents did test positive (sources undocumented), there are no records of having more than one case at any site – and this with the families of essential workers.
In a review by a Brown University economist, looking at 916 centers with 20,000 children, just over 1% of staff and 0.16% of children were infected with the source of the infections being undocumented.
CDC Director Redfield has previously stated that there is no evidence that children transmit the virus to others. This means teachers, staff, and personnel should not fear being around children. The broader concern is staff spreading Covid to one another, but the MNPS staff are all adults who should be able to properly distance from other adults and wear a face mask while at work.
4. What do we know about online learning? – "There is a surprising lack of research into what techniques make for high-quality virtual instruction," according to Brian Fitzpatrick, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. Are we willing to bet our children’s futures on an unproven approach?
According to the National Education Policy Center and studies by Fitzpatrick and his peers, about 300,000 students nationwide were enrolled in full-time virtual schools in the 2017-18 school year, and on average, their academic outcomes were overwhelmingly low. Further, when students switched to virtual schools from in-person schools, their achievement dropped.
For students with IEP, the challenges increase exponentially. The point of an IEP is to provide support specific to that child’s needs. Some students may be nonverbal and rely on physical dues or have ADD and can’t focus on a virtual lesson, and many of the required therapies cannot be provided remotely.
Additionally, we have questions on the following:
- What are the specific metrics that MNPS will use to determine when the in-person option will become available?
- With so much of the CARES funding going into enabling remote learning, how much of it will be spent to enable in-person learning? The schools complain that the funding is not available for PPE, but the money is there. It is a question of how the district chooses to prioritize the spending.
- How are we going to ensure the laptops provided are not sold for money as they were in the spring?
- Most children (and many parents) do not have experience with computers or virtual learning systems. How much instructional time will be spent acclimating to a new machine and platform vs. teaching our children the educational fundamentals?
- How can you ensure parents will accurately represent their children’s work? For example, what if the parent is hand-holding during MAP testing or noticing an error on a test so having their child fix it before turning it in?
Finally, as parents are making the decision, it would be reasonable to place expectations on families wishing to return and have families share the responsibility to stay safe. But we owe it to our children, our families, and our community to give them the opportunity to be in-person.