As educators, we want to be back in school. We miss the connections we make with our students, the laughs we share, and the learning we do together. We recognize as well how much students need face-to-face interaction and social-emotional supports that can be provided only in school buildings. However, our first and most critical duty is to be advocates for the safety of the children in our care, and in that role — and in our roles as elected school committee members — we question the wisdom of the recent state guidance calling for a full school reopening. It compromises too much, and provides too little, to ensure the safety of students.
As school committee members, we were shocked to see that at a time of crisis, when our schools need state leadership, we were told by state officials, largely, to fend for ourselves in the purchasing of necessary personal protective equipment and other safety equipment. A state response that places our most vulnerable children at the center should, at minimum, provide for adequate PPE supplies and robust in-school testing. To do otherwise is to reward wealthy districts while forcing lower-income districts to scramble and compromise.
Many of the Commonwealth’s schools lack the infrastructure to meet the state’s guidance. Many schools — especially those in urban municipalities — are cramped and don’t have space to accommodate proper social distancing. Even at 3 feet between desks — a distance that is not universally supported, and which is smaller than the 6-foot recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — many classrooms will be unable to meet the social distancing guideline. We lack ventilation, or even windows that open. We lack health infrastructure in schools. Portable classrooms, more staffing, and real commitment to state funding are necessary if we are to move forward.
We also lack what we need to plan for the educational attainment of our scholars, especially those with disabilities, those who are learning English, and those who live in poverty. There’s not enough recognition of the ways in which in-person, but masked and socially distanced, education may affect them. Learning a language requires visual as well as auditory cues. Many children with learning disabilities need to be able to see facial expressions both to learn and to navigate interpersonal interaction. The state guidance discusses clear masks but does not provide them, despite the fact that the need for them is higher in districts that lack resources. We are also concerned that disciplinary measures for a lack of PPE among children will fall primarily along lines of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, widening existing disparities in discipline rates across the Commonwealth.
Finally, the guidance lacks any discussion of the safety of school staff. How will we protect the teachers and staff who are older or who have significant health conditions that put them at higher risk? How do we protect their high-risk family members? We cannot in good conscience force people to compromise their health, and that of their loved ones, for their job, but like so many other aspects of this plan, we are asked to await further word. Educators know: Summer vacation isn’t as long as it seems in June. We need an immediate plan to keep our colleagues and students safe.
The state guidelines to reopen schools begin with two key promises: to focus on the well-being of our school communities, and to look at any reopening plan through the lens of equity. But the guidelines fail to deliver adequately on these promises. They should follow the strictest science, provide funding and resources directly, and center on those kids who are most vulnerable, both in terms of their health and their learning.
Our school communities deserve better than compromise in search of normalcy. They deserve real leadership and robust action in place of vague directives and abdication of responsibility. They deserve a plan that carries its own weight instead of setting it on the shoulders of underfunded, overworked school districts. Until that plan exists, we will speak — as educators and as elected officials — in defense of the students and staff in our schools.
Andrew Lipsett is a Woburn School Committee member, Lily Read is a Watertown School Committee member, Ayesha Wilson is a Cambridge School Committee member, Carl Foss is a Burlington School Committee member, Renée Young is a Dracut School Committee member, and Lindsay Mosca is a Watertown School Committee member.