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Forcing Schools to Reopen: a Classist Act that Victimizes Children and Educators



Above: Photo / Adobe Stock

Following up a spate of “worst ever” coronavirus decisions with yet another…

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced their ambitions to have all public schools open and operating by the fall for the start of the new academic year. This is a dicey decision, for most schools closed long before the start of summer break because of the coronavirus, transitioning to virtual leaning for the last few months of classes. Thus, reopening schools in autumn would only make sense if there was a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases over the summer.

Unfortunately, such is not the case, as the pandemic recently hit a second spike with increased numbers in several states throughout the country. Barring some miracle, it does not look like the coronavirus will be reasonably diminished by the regular first day of school. Still, Trump and DeVos are steadfast in their plan to reopen, even threatening to thin school budgets for districts that remain closed.

Understandably, the President and Secretary’s outlook has been criticized by many, most notably teachers, who are strangely left out of conversations about plans to reopen. Many state and local governments—the institutions who have the most direct say in how their schools should operate—also disagree with the federal government on this one, for it puts students, teachers, and faculty members at incredibly high risk.

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Like all things COVID-19-related, though, the risk is not equally intense across the board. Although the public school system is often dubbed America’s great equalizer, history shows that such has never quite been the case. Socio-economic imbalances, racial inequities, language-barriers, and additional differences between districts proves that not every student has the same opportunities across America. The choice to reopen all schools during a pandemic only highlights these ongoing discrepancies.

A higher risk for the lowest income areas echos throughout the pandemic, including schools

First off, there is the simple fact that not all places in America are experiencing COVID-19 in the same way. A few months ago, the mid-Atlantic was facing the worst of it while the Rocky Mountains were relatively safe. Now, states like New Jersey and New York are recovering while figures in Idaho and Utah are surging. To execute the same course of action in all schools across all states in these uncertain times would make no logical sense.

Even schools within the same states, though, have to deal with this pandemic in different ways. Schools in wealthy communities, for example, may have the local tax dollars to afford more instructors, thus allowing for smaller class sizes with more socially-distanced environments. Contrarily, schools operating on shoestring budgets—often urban and overcrowded schools—will have no choice but to put their students at risk. Non-coincidentally, these are also the schools that would be most effected by budget cuts.

Likewise, schools located in disadvantaged parts of the country deal with student populations at a higher risk. Although we are told the virus doesn’t discriminate, if a poor child is infected or someone in his or her family gets sick, that student will face a far less secure road to recovery than someone coming from money. Healthcare bills, insufficient housing, and the tumultuous state of the economy renders the virus far more dangerous to certain demographics than others right. All life is equally precious, but students in schools with large classes and tight budgets have the most to lose from coming into contact with the disease.

Then, there is the matter of education, the quality of which could be severely hurt if students and teachers spend valuable class time worrying about a perilous disease. Increasing precautions would be essential, but who would be responsible for enforcing such precautions? It is hardly the duty of teachers, who being older and having to engage in multiple classes a day will often be at even greater risk than their students.

The danger is real and forcing an across-the-board re-opening is no solution at all

Teachers are already severely overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated for all the effort they put in, and most of them go above and beyond for their students as it is. However, demanding them to put their lives in jeopardy day-in and day-out is simply too much to ask, especially when none of the people making this decision for them are (or ever have been) teachers.

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Of course, nobody dislikes remote learning more than teachers and students. They know better than anyone how imperative in-person instruction is to learning. But it is still not as important as health and wellbeing. Today and always, those should be the top priorities in any institution.

Plus, if Trump or DeVos want to use the “learning experience” or the “importance of education for all” as their rationales for reopening, one only needs to look at their records in the field to recognize the con. Since assuming their current titles, the two political cronies have slashed the federal education department’s budget, often targeting Special Education programs and LGBTQ+ protections for cuts. They are also both big proponents of education privatization. Evidently, the “importance of education for all” was not a big deal for them before the virus started spreading during an election year.

Speaking of privatization, many private schools—including some of the nation’s most elite universities—are currently announcing plans for their fall semesters, and most of them involve remote learning in some capacity. Once again, it demonstrates how the premature decision to reopen schools is latently classist. The students who can afford private educations won’t have to risk their lives everyday. Trump and DeVos, both of whom patronize private high schools and universities, clearly do not think public school students deserve the same protections as their own children.

Sadly, these educational inequities have always been the case. The egregious pressure that Trump and DeVos are currently putting on our nation’s most vulnerable and innocent, however, just brings these inequities to the foreground.

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