On Monday night School Superintendent Franklin Walker predicted that Jersey City schools would continue remote learning until February. Walker had previously targeted November for reopening. While some educators and parents are no doubt relieved by the news, we believe that Walker’s recommendation is a cop out.
According to the Jersey Journal, which covered Monday’s caucus meeting and later interviewed Walker, the superintendent explained, “We have had schools (in the state) that have gone to some hybrid structure, and they have had incidents where they had to close down. We certainly had a chance to learn from our neighbors and other areas that started school long before us, and the indication at this point and time is not to put ourselves in that situation.”
At first blush, Walker’s explanation seems to make sense. If school districts nearby have been unable to pull off a return to school, why would Jersey City be able to? Why not err on the side of caution?
Here are five counter arguments the Board of Education should consider:
1. There is evidence that virtual learning is having dire educational impacts. Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has cited data showing a sharp drop in the number of the youngest students who are meeting literacy benchmarks. According to the Washington Post, D.C. Public Schools released data showing a decline of 22 percentage points in the number of kindergartners meeting literacy goals at the start of the school year compared to a year ago and a nine-percentage-point drop in students through second grade who are meeting these targets. There’s no reason to think that these numbers would be different in Jersey City.
2. Though many large cities in New Jersey are electing to stay with remote learning, other larger cities, including Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Houston, and San Diego are opting to resume classes in some form. New York City, a much larger and more complex school system, has managed to implement a partial reopening.
3. According to an article in The New York Times, experts believe that children are unlikely to stoke coronavirus outbreaks. Infection rates are particularly low at the elementary level. The Times quoted Dr. David Rubin, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think there’s a pretty good base of evidence now that schools can open safely in the presence of strong safety plans and even at higher levels of case incidence than we had suspected,” he said.
4. In an interview on CNN last night, Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted that the U.S. may not return to “normality” until late 2021 or possible early 2022. If Superintendent Walker and the Board of Education are thinking that the situation in February will be substantially different from the situation we confront now, they may be sorely disappointed.
Restarting classes, even with a hybrid system, is a weighty decision. The health of our children and our families should be paramount. And there is some evidence that communities of color will need more convincing as to the safety of reopening. However, the health calculus must also include the mental health and the education of school children, many of whom come from homes that cannot provide the support they need to learn online.
The superintendent, the Board of Education and the teacher’s union can’t put this decision off forever. One approach would be to start with elementary school students who pose the least risk and may be suffering the most academically. The CDC has published an exhaustive list of strategies to minimize spread. Jersey City should study these options and use its best judgment to choose how it will reopen schools prior to next February. However, simply kicking the can down the road and hoping that the decision will get easier any time soon is a mistake.