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Agonizing over what back to school means in the coronavirus era

Fretting over what back to school means now? Here, as with so much else, the pandemic lays bare yawning and inexcusable inequalities in our messed-up country.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Like every other parent of school-age children right now, I am agonizing about what back-to-school means in the coronavirus era.

But accidents of birth and dumb luck make it so that agonizing means different things to different parents. Here, as with so much else, the pandemic lays bare yawning and inexcusable inequalities in our messed-up country.

I change my mind several times a day about this but, as of this minute, I am OK with my rising 7th-grader doing some combination of remote and in-person learning in the fall. I’m terrified of this virus, and fearful that reopening schools could juice a second spike as the weather cools -- particularly since there is no hard border between sensible states like ours and those led by denialists who’d rather impress the negligent president than protect their own constituents. And as California shows, even states that take sensible safety measures can lose ground quickly. But ample distancing, strict mask policies, good ventilation and outdoor time will lessen the risks which, research suggests, are lower for children.

Of course, the state or school district may decide this for me. If it has to be all-remote learning, we’re in for a challenging and frustrating school year in our house, as in so many. I’ll lose more of what remains of my sanity, and my kid will lose another chunk of childhood. But we’ll be fine. My kid has all the technology he needs, and his parents are still employed and can work from home. He’ll be well-fed, and way more closely supervised than he’d like.

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For other, less lucky, families, whether or not schools reopen is an existential question. They’re the same people who have been on the front lines of the pandemic since the beginning: Folks who work blue collar jobs for which they have to show up every day, who brave public transit to work in health care, food service and other industries we deem essential except when it comes to their wages.

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Many of those families are poor, and many are Black and brown -- groups hit especially hard by the first blow of this virus, and who remain most vulnerable if there is a second. For them, schools remaining closed in the Fall means disaster: Who cares for their kids when they’re at jobs they can’t afford to lose? And those who have already fallen behind because of the challenges of remote learning could lose even more ground.

But danger lies in both directions. Returning to school safely requires plenty of space and good ventilation systems at a time when too many of our students learn in decrepit facilities with little outdoor space: Fully two-thirds of Boston Public Schools’ 132 buildings were constructed before World War II, for example. The last thing we need is for schools to be feeding a second spike here, as they appear to have done in Israel after the country fully reopened schools.

It’s up to educators like Thabiti Brown to find a way through this impossible, perilous tangle. Brown, head of Codman Academy Public Charter School, has parents who are refusing to send kids back into classrooms this Fall. Others can’t wait for the doors to open because remote learning hasn’t worked for them. Serving all students safely is an expensive proposition, and the pandemic will crush state and municipal budgets.

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“Our schools were underfunded by $1.5 billion to begin with,” Brown said. “That is unacceptable. If you want us to educate our children in a crisis, you need to address that.”

And that’s before we get to what Brown calls the elephant in the room: In addition to being disproportionately affected by COVID, his families are bearing the burden of its economic fallout. Some of them, already beset by housing and food insecurity, have lost their jobs. For months, the school has been distributing thousands of meals to the community, including to one third of the Codman Academy families.

This school, like so many others that serve vulnerable populations, is about more than learning. It also sustains families. Brown is bracing for the moment, coming all too soon, when funding for the school’s emergency food program runs out, when unemployment benefits drop, and eviction protections end.

That’s the real lesson of these days, the real agony that may lie ahead.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.