As the summer of 2020 wanes and the school year begins, there is understandable fear, confusion, and existential dread regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Myriad questions remain unanswered regarding how to keep our students, teachers, and staff safe amidst the desire to regain some semblance of a normal educational experience.

Debates, lawsuits, and mixed governmental messages rage on, and uncertainty is the order of the day. Where do we go from here?

One Step Forward, How Many Back?

Recently in Israel, the opening of schools backfired almost entirely. The New York Times reports that things did not go as planned:

Confident it had beaten the coronavirus and desperate to reboot a devastated economy, the Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May.

Within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world.

The virus rippled out to the students’ homes and then to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives.

Other outbreaks forced hundreds of schools to close. Across the country, tens of thousands of students and teachers were quarantined.

In Georgia, 850 staff and students were quarantined from one school alone following only six days. Images of crowded hallways and group photographs filled the news. Without a mandate for the wearing of masks, the health of hundreds was put in jeopardy as the science was inadvisably flouted and ignored. Even as we take baby steps forward, we take several giant steps back.

It’s Not Just Teachers

While teachers’ unions are suing to keep their concerned members (many of whom are over 50 and vulnerable to the virus) safely teaching from home, there are other individuals who make education possible. Schools employ or contract for administrative staff; aides for children with disabilities; speech language pathologists and nurses; bus drivers; food services staff; environmental staff, and those who enter schools to repair HVAC systems, office equipment, and appliances.

We must also consider those who serve as substitute teachers. They may not be lifelong educators, but are intrepid enough to provide relief for teachers, often for substandard pay.

Universities and colleges can employ even a larger plethora of workers, and we must also consider their safety in the risk-benefit calculation.

Children and the Future

On an Aug. 11, 2020, episode of his CNN podcast, “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, waxes poetic about being a father as well as a public health leader. He wants his daughters to be safe, yet he would also like them to have the opportunity to reap the benefits of socialization and receive their education in a classroom setting rather than at home in front of a computer.

We have no idea how this experience will impact children’s mental and emotional development, as well as their academic achievement and readiness for life. Countless children receive their main (or only) nutritious meals of the day at school. Nutrition is, of course, central to brain development and learning. With some children living in food insecure homes, double jeopardy may result when nutritional deficiencies are coupled with unstable home environments, lack of parental supervision, and little or no access to online educational portals.

The digital divide is causing countless children to fall behind due to lacking an appropriate device and an internet connection in order to engage in online instruction. The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) states the following in a June 2020 article titled, “The Digital Divide Among Students During COVID-19: Who Has Access? Who Doesn’t?”:

Roughly one in five parents with homebound school-aged children say it is very likely or somewhat likely their children will not be able complete their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home (21 percent) or must use public wifi to finish their schoolwork because there is not a reliable internet connection at home (22 percent). And about three in ten parents (29 percent) report that it is at least somewhat likely their children will have to do their schoolwork on a cell phone.

Some districts have the capacity to distribute hotspots or internet-enabled devices, yet innumerable children go without. This burden is reported to fall mostly on families of color, urban populations, and those in rural areas. With the federal government inactive on this and many other fronts, parents and school districts fend for themselves.

We have also never seen a generation of college students denied the rights of passage and other experiences that are part and parcel of college life, not to mention the development of full executive function. How will this diminish the personal rewards, achievements, and educational outcomes of a college education?

We are in the midst of a crisis of epic proportions, and our children are suffering. The current approach is largely failing, and woe to the country that shortchanges its children’s future due to the ignorance, poor planning, politicking, and inept leadership of the older generations whose responsibility is to shepherd them into productive and successful adulthood. We can do better, and we must — our society’s future is clearly at stake.