I am a parent of a kindergartner, third and fifth graders in Seattle Public Schools. I am also a physician specializing in infectious diseases and faculty member at the University of Washington. Finally, I am a staff physician at Harborview Medical Center, where I have cared for patients with COVID-19.
The decision to close schools was not an easy one, and I appreciate the deliberate approach that was taken by schools Superintendent Denise Juneau and city officials to ensure equality across our diverse citizenry. Ultimately, I believe it was the right decision taken at the right time. However, I have significant concerns about the plan moving forward.
For working families, especially those with someone on the front lines of the pandemic, the closure has been nothing short of traumatic. As parents, we are first concerned for our children’s’ safety and then for their education. My wife also is a physician, so we don’t have the option of working at home. I applaud our teachers’ efforts to communicate ideas for keeping our kids engaged during this time, but we are not educators and cannot replace them. We also don’t have the time to work through the materials and assemble lesson plans ourselves. We cannot expect our stopgap child care solutions (babysitters, nannies, etc.) to fill in as teachers either. I know that parents who are at home also share many of these frustrations.
If schools were only to be closed for a few weeks, like during the “snowpocalypse” in February 2019, we might manage to muddle through and find a way to make up for lost time. But the current plan is for schools to stay closed for six weeks through April 27. There is also little reason to expect that COVID-19 will have passed through our community by that time. I fully expect that school closures will continue in one form or another through the remainder of the academic term (currently June 19).
As city officials grapple with this, I believe schools can take several steps that will allow our students to continue their education while maintaining equity and relieving the burden on working families. These suggestions are consistent with current knowledge of COVID-19 as well as infection-control practices in our hospitals. Like in the health-care setting, they appropriately balance the importance of the mission with the primary objective of protecting workers.
• Allow teachers and administrators to return to school in a limited capacity. Assuming the newly enacted shelter-in-place rule will be lifted in a few weeks, there is no reason for schools themselves to be shuttered. Teachers should be allowed to access their classrooms and offices to plan lessons, grade work and interact virtually with children (FaceTime, Skype, etc). Essential administrative work should also be allowed to continue.
• Allow teachers to design and communicate lesson plans with families. This can be done via existing modes of communication that fulfill the standards of equity, such as email and The Source. If the children need to pick up materials from the school, this can be accomplished in a socially distanced manner, like pizza and grocery delivery.
• Allow children to meet with their teachers once a week if they are not ill. There is no reason for teachers and students to be completely isolated. This is emotionally and psychologically difficult for both parties as well as the parents. When schools closed on March 11, it was unclear what role children played in the epidemic. In the last two weeks, we have learned that children do get infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus, and that they are likely transmitting the virus to others around them. But, we have also learned that most children develop symptoms consistent with the common cold. Teachers can arrange to meet with their students one-on-one or even in small groups for a few hours at least once a week in a manner that is safe to both parties. Common-sense measures for hand hygiene and keeping surfaces clean should be employed, as they were before schools closed. Parents should be required to sign an attestation at the front desk that their child is not symptomatic that day. This forces them to “pause and assess,” and avoids the risk of transmitting any respiratory infection, not just COVID-19. As a health-care professional, I am required to do this before seeing patients at UW-affiliated facilities every day. There is little risk in having healthy adults and children interact with each other responsibly in small groups. By contrast, I believe there would be significant harm in continuing our current policy beyond April 27.
My spouse and I are both products of U.S. public education, and we believe strongly in the mission of public schools. We have no illusion that our lives have changed irrevocably for the time being. But, like most parents, we are hopeful for a new normal that allows our children to receive the education they deserve and prepare them for a future that is bright once the fog of COVID-19 passes through.