/ Opinions / Wisconsin should require schools to fully re-open in the fall

Wisconsin should require schools to fully re-open in the fall

July 10, 2020

President Donald Trump showed strong leadership this week, best expressed in a single tweet: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL.”

The pronouncement marked the launch of an aggressive campaign by the administration — backed up by education secretary Betsy DeVos — to pressure schools to fully re-open this autumn, and that means, specifically, to return to in-person instruction five days a week.

We concur with the president and his administration, and it’s great to see Trump use his bully pulpit for an issue of great importance. In fact, we believe Wisconsin should require all schools to re-open with five-day in-person instruction, with appropriate caveats if conditions really change.

That’s important as teachers’ unions and other groups lobby nationally and in the state against full re-opening. They warn of the dire consequences of doing so, and argue instead for a full reopening that is in their definition really just a little-wee-bit reopening, in other words, a lot of remote instruction and very little in-person learning.

That’s not good enough. We need full five-day instruction this fall for all schools, and it needs to be required. That’s exactly what the state of Florida has done, with the state education commissioner declaring that “upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” 

The order is “subject to advice and orders” from state and local health departments should modifications be needed.

Schools across Europe and the globe have re-opened, too, and there’s a good reason they have: There’s no reason not to, and, as the French education minister observed, it’s more dangerous to keep kids at home.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s talk about the risk. In this pandemic, two main narratives have emerged, one of apocalypse and one of reality, one of fiction and one of fact. 

The only narrative widely reported is the apocalyptic version, most brilliantly expressed by a column published this week by Bloomberg and widely circulated in other mainstream media: “A lower COVID-19 death rate is nothing to celebrate.”

All we can say about that is, Wow. So, instead of drinking in such absurd headlines expressing such absurd points of view, let’s examine some facts about the risks.

For the students it’s about zero. It’s so close to zero that it’s essentially incalculable. The latest study, a Dutch one to go with all the other ones, again finds that relatively few children have been reported with COVID-19 worldwide, and fewer still have died.

But what about the staff? Again, it’s just not likely because the viral loads found in those few children who have been infected are low, and, for whatever other reasons, children just aren’t good vectors of transmission. 

In one known case, a positive child in Europe went to three different schools, accumulated hundreds of close contacts, and infected no one. A study by New South Wales’ National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, which examined data of staff and students at five primary schools and 10 high schools, found that, out of 863 people who were in close contact with someone with COVID-19, only two, or 0.23%, contracted the virus.

Except in one instance, schools have not sponsored super-spreader events, such as is the case with the flu. And, as has been reported widely elsewhere, in Denmark, teachers just aren’t a high risk group, actually less likely than other occupations to get the disease. Not to mention, but for general population adults under 65 with no serious underlying disease, the risk is also amazingly low. 

We could go on, but you get the point. The point is, teachers should teach, and schools should be reopened in full.

If they don’t, taxpayers deserve a refund of the money they paid for such an education. And it should be paid for by reducing the pay of teachers who choose not to return to full-time in-person instruction without a valid reason.

In these editorial pages, we have been all about protecting the most vulnerable populations, and the same is true here. Teachers in high-risk groups — the elderly and those with underlying conditions — should be given modified assignments with no penalty.

The rest should teach as they were hired to do.

On the other side of the equation, there’s the reason full-time in-person instruction is needed. The reason is, distance learning isn’t learning, and the pandemic only proved it.

According to research by NWEA, an Oregon-based nonprofit that helps educators tailor instruction, “preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 5% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”

It will be even worse for many students. In northern Wisconsin, in some districts, nearly 20% of students have independent education plans. The road with distance learning is almost impossible to navigate for students with special needs, most of whom need more one-on-one on-site support and therapy.

And it’s hard, too, for students in low-income households or in more remote rural areas who do not have ready online access.

The bottom line is, beyond the severe economic disruption that increasing reliance on distance learning will cause, it’s just an unmitigated disaster for our children.

It’s funny how those who propose extreme measures that are quite clearly overreactions do not stop to consider the consequences of their actions. 

The economic destruction from the lockdowns will likely linger for a decade. The increases in domestic violence, drug abuse and violence, and child abuse was nary considered. With face masks, people are offered up a false sense of security by donning the emperor’s new clothes to strut around in.

Even with school guidelines, we see no reasoned thinking through of ideas. One of DPI’s guidance suggestions, for example, is to make students use many points of entry into schools to help stop the spread of the virus, never mind that all we’ve heard for years now is schools need to be single point-of-entry buildings to help make them safer from gun violence. The absurdity is, gun violence in schools actually kills students; the virus won’t.

None of these contradictions and downsides are even mentioned, much less debated. It’s critical now that the downsides of not fully reopening schools are considered, and we thank the president for making full-reopening a top priority.

It’s heartening that our local schools have already made a plan to fully reopen, but it’s troubling that many others have not made that decision, and it’s equally troubling that some union leaders and school officials in the state are lobbying hard to throw down roadblocks to planned re-openings.

For example, Dr. Jeff Weiss, superintendent of South Milwaukee School District, incorrectly told lawmakers that “there’s no completely safe way to completely open schools as long as there’s no vaccine or treatment for the virus.”

Oh but there is a way. It’s to open them, open them fully, and move forward, and everyone should let lawmakers know that that is what is needed for our children and our future.

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