School districts and the state’s teachers unions have pressed the Baker administration to come up with benchmarks to guide public school reopening decisions, and on Wednesday it finally did just that. The administration classified every community in the state into one of four risk categories based on the local coronavirus prevalence, and the governor advised schools in the lowest two tiers to reopen for at least some in-person learning.
“If you’re in [the two lowest risk categories], I can’t imagine a good reason not to go back, whether it’s full-time or in some sort of a hybrid, because, for all intents and purposes, you meet all the benchmarks that are being used across the country and across New England to make decisions about whether it’s safe to go back to school,” Baker said during a press conference at the State House.
Many of the state’s school districts are already finalizing plans for the fall. But whether to reopen is (or at least, should be) a fluid decision responsive to changing conditions and evolving understanding of COVID-19. In addition to prevalence rates, the state also now advises factoring in the rate of positive tests in a community and the overall trend lines. It’s a sensible approach, and districts don’t need to rely completely on Baker’s word: The World Health Organization says schools can reopen if coronavirus positivity rates fall below 5 percent in a community over 14 days. Massachusetts stands well below that benchmark, and so do most towns and cities in the Commonwealth — with some notable exceptions, including some poor communities around the state.
Boston currently is in the state’s third category, corresponding to a recommendation for a hybrid model with some remote learning and some in-person instruction. The city is expected to announce its plans soon. The city is in a somewhat unique situation, with varying positivity rates within Boston and with many students bused across neighborhood lines. Communities with high-risk levels like Chelsea, Lynn, and Everett also have unique considerations.
Unfortunately, at both the national and state levels, the question of whether to reopen schools, and how, has become unduly politicized. President Trump has pushed schools to reopen fully regardless of public health data. But what makes sense in Massachusetts may not make sense in Florida or Texas.
It’s understandable that teachers, and many parents, worry about the potential for schools to spread the coronavirus. But saying schools across the state shouldn’t reopen until they are “safe” is the wrong way for districts to approach their decisions this fall. Even if a vaccine is invented tomorrow, Americans are going to continue to contract and die from the coronavirus for months or years to come. If the levels of prevalence currently recorded in the low-risk areas of Massachusetts aren’t enough to reopen schools, they may be closed for an awfully long time.
And the state and school districts ought to view that as unacceptable. When schools shut down in the spring, the consequences were terrible, and continuing indefinitely with remote-only learning carries enormous risk for students and for the public school system as a whole. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has said, “All policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
Families should of course have the option of keeping their children home from school, and teachers with high risk should not be expected to teach in person. And for districts that can’t open completely for logistical reasons, the first priority should be serving the needs of students with special needs — such as kids with disabilities and English-language learners — and very young children. There is some evidence suggesting that kids under age 10 do not spread the disease as easily as older children and adults. Elementary school kids are also the cohort hardest to teach remotely, as countless parents and teachers can attest.
Districts planning a phased reopening might want to reconsider. Time isn’t necessarily on their side, because the pandemic may well worsen in the winter. That’s a reason to bank as much in-person learning time as possible now in places where prevalence and positivity rates are generally low, before flu season hits. One of the few silver linings to online learning last spring was that at least students had existing relationships with teachers and peers.
Online learning was inadequate in general, but it hit poor families harder and exacerbated existing divides. An appalling number of children simply fell through the cracks in Boston, despite efforts by the district to distribute computers and Internet access. And the closure of schools sent cascading ripple effects through the rest of the social safety net. Many children rely on free meals provided at school. Teachers, counselors, and nurses are part of the eyes and ears of the child-welfare system, and it’s a lot harder to spot signs of abuse and neglect over Zoom.
In the long term, a prolonged period of inferior remote learning risks creating a lost generation of kids, their educations hobbled and their social and emotional growth stunted. That would be a tragedy, compounded by the possibility that privileged families will ditch public schools altogether.
It goes without saying that there are serious risks inherent with any reopening of schools — both for teachers and for students. Kids, especially young kids, may struggle to wear masks or maintain safe social distancing. Crowded hallways and school buses would pose serious transmission risks. Some of what the teachers unions have called for seems eminently reasonable: Schools should inspect air circulation systems, upgrade them as appropriate, and devise more realistic busing plans. If schools reopen for just some high-needs and young students, they should use extra classrooms to spread students out. For the late summer and early fall, playgrounds and city parks might be used to hold outdoor classes. Districts should let kids who live with elderly grandparents or family members vulnerable to the coronavirus stay home and make every effort to meet their needs remotely. The state should prioritize rapid testing for school kids and teachers in districts that do reopen.
But a Commonwealth that values education so highly that the state constitution commands officials to “cherish” it can’t sleepwalk into another year of inferior learning. In places where the disease risk is low, that means opening schools. In places where it’s not, it means aggressive efforts to control the disease — including shutting down less essential businesses like gyms and indoor dining again — so that the balance of risks shifts to favor reopening. Districts have no perfect options, and there are risks to the health and education of school kids no matter what course superintendents choose. Ultimately, though, the science around the pandemic and around education both point in the same direction: Reopening schools in some capacity is critical for many kids and, at this juncture, it’s what many Massachusetts districts can and should be doing.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.