Letter to the Editor: Reopening schools is not one size fits all

Aug 17, 2020

To the Editor: 

I am writing to express my concern about the one size fits all approach to reopening schools. The current plan grants all student age groups the same access to in-person instruction, specifically discounting a tiered approach by age. Why are we treating our five and six-year–old students the same as our 16 and 17-year-old students?

The proposed reopening plan was approved by the ORR District School Committee with minimal communication to the community, significantly limiting the ability of committee members, teachers, and parents to thoroughly read the plan and generate thoughtful questions and criticisms.

The article “Reopening Primary Schools during the Pandemic” recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine (Published July 29, 2020) discusses the need to prioritize reopening school for young children in grades K to five ahead of opening classrooms to older children of middle and high school age. This is a notably more critical time for children of younger ages than it is for older students. This is a time when elementary students should be gaining “essential academic and social–emotional learning, formative relationships with peers and adults, opportunities for play, and other developmental necessities”.

The article goes on to note that several countries have reopened schools while maintaining suppression of the virus by focusing on opening elementary classrooms first with social distancing rules in place and maintaining remote learning for older students that are capable of learning in a remote setting. The researchers state: “we believe that schools in low-transmission settings could probably provide pedagogically sound and socioemotionally appropriate instruction to all students, in person, in ways that do not put educators or families at undue risk.” Massachusetts and the Tri-Town are currently defined as a low-transmission setting.

NPR’s On Point also published an article recently titled “Can Schools Open Safely During A Pandemic? Looking Abroad For Answers” (on July 22, 2020), which includes a Summary of School Re-opening Models by Country that suggests countries that opened lower grades while keeping older students out of the classroom had much less of an impact on transmission rates. The chart shows
countries that opened schools to older students only or all students simultaneously were at greater risk of increasing infection rates
than those that opened elementary only.

There is no dispute that this pandemic is massively and harshly disruptive to all our lives. But to assume that the elementary age students can benefit from hybrid and remote learning as well as junior and senior high school age students can or that the impact on transmission rates is the same is unreasonable. Moreover, some of the elementary school buildings that are substantially under-capacity allowing for additional distancing while the junior and senior high schools have a potentially inadequate HVAC system, windowless classrooms, trough-style sinks in the bathrooms, and a plan that includes significant mixing among students and teachers and between classrooms, as noted at the August 10, 2020 ORR District School Committee meeting.

Additionally, given the assistance and attention that elementary students require it’s not possible for many parents to assume the teaching role, particularly in homes with a single parent or two full-time working parents. Families with children that are not mature or developed enough to work independently are likely to seek other accommodations (such as daycare) for their children on the days that they are scheduled to be remote in order to get their children much needed in-person instruction. This could very well cancel any benefit to transmission rates that was intended by restricting classroom time for those children, putting teachers and students at increased risk.

I implore the ORR Administration and School Committees to reconvene on this topic to create a solution that is more equitable for students in most need of in-person instruction while also reducing risk of transmission to the extent possible. Heeding the guidance of epidemiologists and pediatricians as well as looking to other countries that have successfully reopened schools, please reconsider the hybrid-for-all model in favor of a solution that provides more in-person instruction for elementary students and high need learners.

Colleen Trahan