Debunking the rhetoric about reopening schools

I want in-person school. I cannot wait to return to the chaotic hallways of middle school and the dynamic environment of teaching in a classroom filled with energetic, passionate students. Like every teacher, this is my fuel, and I have been craving this since I was ripped from my classroom in March by the arrival of COVID-19. However, more than anything, I want to not get sick. I want my family and my community to not get sick. I want my students and their families to not get sick. Call me irrational, but more than anything, I don’t want my passion — public education — to be the reason anyone dies.

As I try to enjoy another beautiful summer, I am interrupted by the short-sighted, bordering on heartless, rhetoric surrounding the reopening of school buildings. Yes, we are only reopening buildings — school never closed. In fact, hundreds of Anchorage students are actively engaged in online school right now through remediation, enrichment and acceleration. I recognize the need to regain any sense of normal in the midst of a pandemic that has so far claimed more than 140,000 American lives in only six months. I want nothing more than normalcy. I would love to go for a run without shouting in my head at anyone within 6 feet or attend a movie with my kids. But we are past returning to normal. We must cease trying to solve a novel problem using a normal lens. With that in mind, I have collected a few common statements made in the push to reopen school buildings, in no particular order.

“Our students are falling behind.”

While an undefined portion of our students may not be advancing at the same rate they would have without a global pandemic, they are not behind. All benchmarks, proficiencies, grade levels and everything else are created by us. Many are arbitrary measures of growth, full of bias and misused by those in and out of education to punish students, teachers and schools unnecessarily — and it may be a silver lining if they evolve. Second, many of our students started to flourish without the constraints of a school schedule. Many found they work better focusing on fewer classes at once or at different times of the day. Lastly, students can catch up on any academics or skills, and we can adjust our future teaching and school years to accommodate that. What we can’t do is avoid the thousands who will get sick and the hundreds who will die.

“The mortality rate in children is almost nonexistent.”

That one word: “almost.” “Almost” is admitting a willingness to sacrifice the life of a child for the economy. That sentence alone should keep school buildings closed. Even with a death rate as low as .02%, reopening buildings now will result in the death of multiple students. With half the population in buildings simultaneously, that is still as many as 1,000 students and staff. Every risk prediction I’ve seen is at more 99%. This will clearly result in the death of students, teachers and those they interact with. Have you ever attended the funeral of a child? Surrounded by classmates and community members while a slideshow plays baby photos? It is a devastating event and yes, it does happen under normal times; however, we do not need to knowingly increase that when there are other options.

“Our kids’ mental and social health will suffer if we don’t open buildings back up.”


I’m not a mental health professional, but I’m pretty sure that kids will be in better mental health not watching their friends get sick and die. Do you know what losing a classmate, teacher or family member does to a student? Do you think going back to school, under severe safety protocols that keep kids distanced, in masks, eating separately at lunch, not having assemblies or other large gatherings, limited high-risk electives like music and physical education, is really going to give any social and mental health gain that won’t be obliterated when those same students have to attend an online funeral of their classmate, teacher or someone else they know, carrying with them the knowledge that going back into school buildings made that happen? Or even the anxiety of being in the building itself knowing they might get sick? Even if, by some miracle, we are able to escape any deaths directly exacerbated by opening, we will have hundreds or thousands of students, teachers and family members with severe, lifelong health issues related to COVID-19 infection. As we learn more about this virus, we have irrefutable evidence it is not “like the flu” and can cause serious chronic problems. I am not willing to knowingly sacrifice lives or health when there are other ways to provide mental health care and social needs.

“Remote learning was a disaster.”

Unless a student was enrolled in one of the programs already doing distance learning, they haven’t even experienced remote learning. What almost all ASD students and families experienced last school year was crisis teaching and learning during a pandemic. It was not designed to be remote learning, it was designed to get us through a crisis. As you read this, hundreds of Anchorage teachers are working to develop robust and meaningful online experiences. Remote learning in the 2020-21 school year will look nothing like fourth quarter of 2019-2020.

“We have to have schools open for the economy.”

The thing is, we don’t have to have schools open for the economy. We want to open schools for the economy because it is the easiest thing to do. Schools have handled so many of society’s problems, it is just expected we add “pandemic.” But this is not an issue for schools alone. A highly contagious virus is a true community issue and should be handled as such. By combining the power of our schools, municipality, state, business community and nonprofit groups, we can open the economy, provide a meaningful education for all and also not knowingly sacrifice lives.

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” To solve the issue of public education in a pandemic, we must think differently and innovate to provide all the services schools provide, including the country’s largest child care, while keeping communities safe, which should mean no in-person school until 14 days with zero new cases.

First, we have to let go of Aug. 20 as a hard date to start this school year. Push this to after Labor Day to allow more time to collaborate as well as for Alaskans to step up and do their part to get cases back down to zero. The delay can be made up by having school through spring break or adding time onto the end of the year. I would rather have school in June than funerals in September.

Second, our problem isn’t that kids need to be in school to get an education, our problem is that kids need to be in school so adults can work. Some in the community have put forth using unused spaces and adults who need work to provide a place and supervision for students, which would help with online education. This is the kind of thinking we need and should be a partnership between our municipality and school district.

Third, invest in the time and resources to make remote learning equitable for all. This is more than technology and will take pointed outreach through not only ASD, but also nonprofit and municipal agencies. A delayed start allows for a more thorough needs assessment. The idea of those students with the highest risk factors returning to buildings while others remain remote should be explored, as well as prioritizing elementary education. With the right approach and resources, we can ensure that remote learning is equitable for all students.

Fourth, as a community, we must step up and do our part to get to no new cases for 14 days before even discussing returning to buildings. If we want to have school in person anytime this school year, we need to wear masks, keep our distance and practice strict hygiene.

We can do this, Alaska, but it’s going to take us all thinking differently and acting collectively. We all want to return to normal and we all want a thriving economy. But if you’re like me, you’d also like everyone to stay alive.

Ben Walker teaches 7th grade science and is the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year.

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