Hot takes on remote schooling are all over the place, but most of them miss the point

Schools all over the place are having staffing problems, including in places where it is absolutely, 100% not attributable to teachers unions and/or Democratic policymakers. Like Idaho. And Alabama. And Ohio. In Cincinnati, schools are going remote from Jan. 12 to 24 after 786 staff absences on Jan. 6. The school district there surveyed staff, students, and parents and found that all three groups preferred a district-wide closure to closures on a school by school basis. Many, like Marshall, cited the quality of education happening if large numbers of teachers and students are absent.

Whatever warm body we could throw in there is who covered my classes,” one high school teacher said. “So my students, my juniors and seniors who need English to graduate, spent the first week of the quarter with no instruction.”

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was forced to close 20 schools this week due to staffing shortages. Waterbury, Connecticut, moved some schools to half-day schedules, citing not just teacher shortages but a desperate need for more school bus drivers. A middle school in Green Bay, Wisconsin, couldn’t maintain in-person school this week. The same is true of several schools in the Portland, Oregon, area. The Lake Washington School District in Washington State took some schools remote temporarily. 

Districts are struggling with this question. They’re doing their best to stay open, and our general observation is they are doing a good job until they just cannot staff their buildings enough, and that’s when they’re having to make this tough choice,” Chris Reykdal, Washington’s State superintendent of public instruction, explained. “People are doing the right thing. They’re calling us, telling us they got it, and they need to be out five days and when there’s enough of them who do that, we don’t have the staff to run a school. Thankfully, it isn’t very severe out there. It is however voluminous.”

It’s not just teachers and bus drivers and other staff, either. Student attendance in New York City during the first week back from the winter break was no higher than 72% on any day. “In Rochester, New York, 40% of students were absent on the first day back. Across Florida, more students were gone too—23% were missing in Osceola County on Monday, twice what was typical last month, and 18% were absent in Miami–Dade County,” Chalkbeat reported. “In Hartford, Connecticut, nearly a third of students weren’t present.” Some of these kids at home may be quarantined rather than sick, or have minor symptoms that would allow them to engage in remote learning, if their schools had remote options.

Everyone wants schools open—including in Chicago, where the teachers union voted to go remote until school district management improved safety protocols, only to be locked out for several days—but the virus does not care about that. Keeping schools open and functioning as centers of education simply isn’t possible everywhere right now.

This is the context in which we’re getting an onslaught of whines about how Democrats and teachers unions shouldn’t have closed schools in 2020-2021. Isn’t that interesting? 

But even if we take those discussions as simply comments about the past with no relevance to the current situation—an approach that would be naive since obviously they’re being published at this moment in time with the implication that they have something to say about what’s going on now—even if we do that, these are deeply flawed takes. Pointing to several of the prominent “remote learning is an unequivocal harm to children and schools must remain open at all costs” voices like The New York Times’ David Leonhardt and Brown University economist Emily Oster, Harvard epidemiologist Michelle D. Holmes takes on this line of thinking in a must-read piece at The American Prospect.

First, she takes issue with “the either/or, win-lose framing of the issue. It is as if children are all on one side of the scale and adults are all on the other. Or as if academic success and socialization are all on one side of the scale and risk of infection is all on the other. Or as if public health was all on one side of the scale and the economy was all on the other. Or as if remote learning is a disaster and in-person schooling is salvation.”

It’s not either/or. And, Holmes argues, the either/or thinking is erasing the experiences of many Black and Latino families, even as their children’s educational needs are cited as reasons for schools to be in person no matter what. Black and Indigenous children have been more likely to die from COVID-19 than white children, she points out, and Black, Latino, and Indigenous children have been more likely to have lost parents or caregivers. Isolation from peers and remote learning across a digital divide are problems for kids. Living with fear and loss is also a problem, and it’s one that gets short shrift from commentators who are insulated from it.

”[I]n many local advisory sessions, I have heard white parents and board members frequently cite the suffering of Black and Latino children, even though Black and Latino parents have consistently been the most reluctant to send their children back to in-person learning during the pandemic. The reasons for the reluctance are so obvious and complicated as to cast a caustic eye on the agenda of those who would force them back into classrooms,” Holmes writes. 

“As an academic myself, I of course believe that keeping schools open is a priority, far more important than keeping bars, restaurants, and sports venues open. But nowhere in the arguments by white advocates of in-person schooling are respectful acknowledgments of the legitimate fears held by parents of color as to how COVID-19 can devastate their lives.”

People can reasonably disagree about where the most significant dangers to children and adults and communities lie. The pandemic has made everything so very complicated that we are all groping our way through the dark, trying to figure things out as we go. Mistakes are inevitable, as are priorities that differ while being valid. But too many people pretend they are concerned about Black and Latino children while refusing to acknowledge the perspectives of many, many Black and Latino families. Too many people target teachers for being concerned about safety in schools while studiously ignoring the longstanding underfunding of schools that has created overcrowding and inadequate ventilation and all but nonexistent COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. And these days? Far, far too many people want to pretend that the in person versus remote debate is about what anyone wants to have happen rather than about the reality of the record-shattering omicron surge and the staffing shortages it has created.

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