Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor of Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South.” His next book, “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland,” will be released by Other Press this year. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
America’s young people need to get back to school in person. There is no substitute for them interacting with each other. It’s how human beings are wired.
Given what we think we know about the coronavirus, that the rate of infection has slowed but that – as Dr. Anthony Fauci has said – another wave of infection is likely later in the year, the goal should be to reopen in late summer – an approach that colleges like Notre Dame and several others have said recently they are adopting: open school a couple of weeks earlier than usual, cancel fall break to reduce student travel and shorten the term to finish before Thanksgiving.
While that approach (and its alteration of the traditional academic calendar) presents challenges to higher education – and, in different ways, to K-12 education – the overall goal should be to open as many schools as feasible.
This is not an ideal option, but it’s the right one. I say this as a professor pleasantly surprised that remote teaching (which I hadn’t done before) was more effective than I expected when we were forced to end in-person classes in March. I say this as a father who would not have sent his two teenagers living in South Carolina back to school even if Gov. Henry McMaster had ordered them reopened in May – and as a person who is among the ranks of the immune-compromised, who have to be particularly careful to try to avoid being infected.
Having weighed all the possibilities – the loss of in-person education until 2021, or longer if the optimistic timeline for an effective vaccine isn’t met; a deepening of the academic achievement divide; the effects on parents and families – it seems that the best thing we can do is to save as many lives as we can by taking safety measures seriously, as well as protecting our mental health, but do this while being back at school.
The lockdown was necessary and may be needed again in the coming months, but we aren’t designed to be on lockdown.
I understand that whatever path we take forward comes with risks. But we should not throw away what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past several weeks: bent the curve of the virus’s spread downward. The goal of lockdown and continued social distancing has been to prevent our health care system from being overrun.
In some areas of the country, like parts of New York City, that siege happened anyway. We paid a dear price for it in lives – with an official death toll that is heading toward 100,000 as Memorial Day approaches– and a Depression-like unemployment rate.
Too many health care and other frontline workers have succumbed to Covid-19; others suffered the immense stress of tending to so much death and disease. Still, there’s growing evidence that we’ve turned the corner on the first phase of this pandemic, which is why each state is undergoing some version of reopening.
The other goal of controlling the curve was to give ourselves more and better options than we had in March and April.
Given what experts have said about a potential resurgence of the virus and the flu season in the fall and winter, reopening schools this summer may well be our best opportunity for invaluable in-person instruction while there’s time. It’s time to throw the old calendar out. Let’s take advantage of this time to re-envision what education can be.
For instance, as biology professor Erin Bromage has noted, it’s harder for the infection to spread outdoors, especially with proper social distancing. That provides an opportunity to have more classes in the open air, maybe under canopies or the kinds of tents used at weddings – something that’s much easier to do during the more temperate months of the year.
When I visited Ghana last summer as part of a missions and educational trip during which I helped train journalists, I visited schools for elementary- and middle school-age children, where many classes were taught in similar circumstances because little else was available. We can learn from others who’ve long had to educate their children in less-than-ideal circumstances.
Zoom and other online teaching tools must remain options, even if just to cut down on the number of students in a given classroom (or outdoor facsimile) to maintain social distancing. And during a time like this, maybe science classes should be held in a field or near a stream, physics at a skate park, history outside a slave cabin, engineering at the foot of a bridge.
We could find a socially distanced way to get the kids there – parent dropoffs for younger kids or buses with spaced seating for older students.
Let’s completely reimagine where and how we conduct in-person education, because the country we knew in February is not coming back. We can view that as a tragedy and let it stop us in our tracks or grab onto it as an opportunity to rethink, tinker, innovate.
The virus has provided us an awful reminder about the racial, economic and other divides that have long been with us. Maybe that’s why it’s forcing us to reimagine how things should be even if it has to drag us kicking and screaming away from the recent – but now old – ways. We never should have accepted those disparities. The virus, for all the horrors it has wrought, has opened our eyes, proving why not providing better care for the most vulnerable is a detriment to us all.
I get that it’s hard to make choices about what’s best where young people are involved, especially with uncertainty lingering in the air like the virus droplets we all fear complicates every decision we make.
There are other dynamics afoot that make it hard to shake that anxiety. We are led by a federal government that has overseen one of the most inept pandemic responses in the developed world and a president who didn’t initially take the threat seriously because he was too concerned about how it would make him look, and who is now touting dangerous treatments.
Groups of armed men have threatened and intimidated legislators and governors. Federal officials spent precious weeks telling us to not cover our faces, though we know now that widespread use of face masks helps stop the spread of the virus. Some officials in the White House have suggested the death numbers are inflated – even though most analysts say they are likely an undercount.
Mental health experts are warning of the fallout and advocates worry we won’t be able to detect or track increases in child abuse and domestic violence for months.
We all face difficult decisions, including those of us who are educators. But we teach students to build their skill sets and knowledge base not for times of comfort and ease, but for times like these so they can make the world a better place.
Over the past couple of months, we’ve been forced to learn. A lot. It’s time for us to apply those lessons the way we’ve taught our students to do.