An unusual turn here at Any Good Thing and a break from my short break online: a letter to my local school board.
I live in a state with D+ rating on its COVID handling, in a county with community spread (and death yesterday), and in a region where most counties have rejected our governor’s mandate to wear masks. While my county finally adopted the mandate yesterday, that was a week after initially rejecting it, in part because our sheriff refuses to enforce it. And yet schools are trying to open.
The school board met on Monday and the state board of ed yesterday to plan for fall. Here is the letter I wrote to my local board members about the matter. I share it at the request of friends who found its main points useful, and anyone who would like to share, borrow, or adapt it is free to do so, without needing to ask permission. I have revised it lightly to make it more easy to adapt to audiences beyond my town and to remove identifying information about my children.
Above, a photo from a state protest against reopening schools under unsafe conditions. The window of a car is painted with the words “Keep schools closed and ONLINE. Keep students and teachers ALIVE.”
Dear members of the school board,
I write as a parent of three children at two schools in the district. I am also a professional educator myself at the college level and someone with extensive experience teaching online. I’m a sociologist with experience teaching and researching disasters, including the social impacts of pandemics.
I share this because I want you to know that my recommendations are informed by research and data, not politics or personal preferences. Probably like most people, I want my children to return to school. Like many in our community, I lack the support to successfully homeschool or support my children in their online educations. And yet I vehemently oppose a reopening of public schools for all children. Here are four reasons why:
1. The research does not indicate that a safe reopening is possible at this point. Simply, the US and our state have not invested in the resources necessary for a safe reopening. I tell my own children that outcomes are predictable results of input, so if they want a particular outcome (an A grade, for example), they have to put in the work. We–in the US, in our state, and in our county–have not put in the work required for a safe reopening; that was a choice, and it is most respectful to the people of the state to allow them to live with the choice they made. It is not appropriate for schools to take responsibility for the consequences of a national and state political failure.
A safe reopening is unlikely through winter given current patterns of local behavior. Until people in our county and city wear masks and practice social distancing, community spread will continue unabated. Schools cannot solve problems created by others. The coronavirus pandemic represents an opportunity for other social institutions to take up their responsibilities rather than asking teachers and schools to subsidize their failures. Our region has chosen to fail, and schools cannot rescue the region from this failure.
2. Death will result from reopening. These cases will be easy to trace back to schools and to individual students and teachers. The reason we have (or are supposed to have) public health is because there are some health problems that cannot be resolved through individual action. It is unethical to ask our children to bear the moral responsibility of preventing the deaths of their loved ones, classmates, and teachers. Already, we know of cases of broken families and tremendous guilt for those whose behavior has caused the predictable but preventable deaths of others. Schools have a duty to model “safety first” as a form of care for others and self. To claim to be a “school community” and yet to force children to carry a virus that will kill their loved ones is abuse of children, and it will affect them their entire lives.
3. The demand that schools reopen to meet the social, physical, and emotional needs of children is an effort to expand the responsibility of schools without expanding their mission or resources; it is merely an abdication of duty from other institutions. I understand that the American Academy of Pediatricians [UPDATE:The AAP has walked back this recommendation.] and others have called for reopening in order to support vulnerable students. This call misplaces responsibility for family violence and child neglect on schools.
I say this as a person who spends about 20 hours per week working with victims of family violence, crime, and neglect at a local nonprofit agency: when people (such as state and national politicians) who have never fully invested in ending domestic violence, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for those who are unhoused, etc. demand that schools do this work, we know that their intention is not really to care of the vulnerable. Schools need to refuse to allow children living in abuse to become weapons against others or to have their own abuse used against them as justification for an unsafe reopening. States can, even now, do significant work to protect children without reopening schools. Please stop arguing that if we don’t open schools, children will be neglected or harmed; this is a social choice, not a school-based one; if we don’t want kids harmed, we can choose to keep them safe without reopening. When schools repeat the lie that we can only keep children safe through schools, they are using child abuse as an excuse not to hold communities accountable for ending family violence.
4. Reopening hurts vulnerable children the most because these are the children whose families are most at risk of COVID, with the least resources to recover from it, and for whom the consequences of COVID are most dire. Yes, school closures are hard on already-stressed families; parental death is harder.
I understand that you have many voices pleading for your attention. I understand that it’s tempting to say that this decision is “hard” and “complex.” But, in the end, it is not: schools cannot safely reopen, and thus they cannot be reopened. The predictable death and life-long injury that will result most negatively impacts those most vulnerable, and using their vulnerability as an excuse to reopen is an act of violence itself.
I believe that if schools stand in solidarity here, they can create social pressure to contribute to the conditions necessary for an eventual safe reopening. In contrast, if schools continue to acquiesce to the dangerous demands of people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions, then schools will forever be cleaning up others’ mistakes. If you open now, you are saying that a certain amount of death and lifelong injury is acceptable. When you try to close after the first 3 deaths, you will then be arguing with people who say that some death was inevitable–3 isn’t too much, after all. And then it will be 5 and then 10. And then it will your favorite teacher or your neighbor or your own child. And the community impact of that is generational. That–not a year away from a building–is the real threat.
You are going to be the villain in someone’s interpretation of this story. Please choose to be the villain whose actions save lives.