The raging debate about whether to reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic seems destined to come to an end in the next few months.
Not because they finally figured out the right path, based on infectious-disease controls or societal values. But because of the vaccine.
I don’t blame anyone for not solving this one. Whether to send kids and teachers back into classrooms, or keep doing Zoom school, was 2020’s impossible issue.
The growing damage to some kids of keeping schools closed is painfully clear. At the same time, more than 300 school employees around the country have died from COVID-19 (what complicates this tragic stat is that it isn’t known for many whether they caught the virus at school, because testing and contact tracing has been so spotty).
Scientists have since learned more about how the coronavirus spreads, and concluded in a study last week that some schools probably could have been reopened faster. Especially had we deployed more testing, to better track outbreaks and understand the rates of disease spread in surrounding communities.
Looking back, though, we tended to devote those testing resources to things like getting college and pro football back up and running.
The intractability of all this was highlighted for me in October, when a doctor forwarded an open letter by five pediatric physicians, arguing that schools for younger kids should reopen. They made a good case. But then I asked the doctor, based on his own experience with infectious-disease controls in local hospitals, whether he himself would be willing to stand in a classroom with dozens of kids rotating through for six or eight hours each day.
His answer: “For the record, no way in hell would I do that … My sense is that our education system is so broken and under-resourced that many cannot even fathom what it would really take to do this safely … there are lots of things that can make this safe, if only we choose to do them.”
Story of the pandemic right there. Lots we could have, should have, done, but didn’t.
The hope now is that this “impossible issue” could — repeat could — be made somewhat moot by the vaccine.
There are only three million K-12 public-school teachers in America. If we made it a priority, we could have National Teacher Vaccination Day, offering them all the shot in one day. Then go back to in-person school (after the waiting periods for the vaccine to take effect). There would still have to be PPE and other disease controls, and many parents may still choose not to send their kids, but at least the decision-tree logjam would be shaken up.
I know, hoping technology will fix a problem is the easy way out. But with vaccination here, I’d argue we should be more focused now on the future anyway — on how students are going to recover from a degraded year of schooling.
So here’s a big idea for 2021: Why not use the federal COVID relief money, which clocks in at $824 million for K-12 schools for Washington state, on a jobs program in which we hire older students to do one-on-one tutoring in schools?
Two education professors at Brown University just proposed this on a national scale. They argue the best way to tackle COVID-19 learning loss would be to hire 300,000 to several million part-time tutors nationwide.
“Tutoring is among the most effective education interventions ever to be subjected to rigorous evaluation,” they write. “Our blueprint is that … high school students would tutor in elementary schools, college students in middle schools, and full-time 2- and 4-year college graduates in high schools via AmeriCorps.”
“Returning schools to the way they were when they closed last spring will not heal the damage students have sustained,” echoes Robert Slavin, an education research director at Johns Hopkins University, who has also proposed what he dubs a “tutoring Marshall Plan.”
This is the best COVID recovery idea I’ve heard yet, by far. For starters, one-on-one tutoring just works. It isn’t that costly — one of the proposals above estimates around $1,000 per year per kid. That means tutoring, say, half the K-12 kids in our state, could cost on the order of $550 million — only about 2% of what the state spends on schools annually (and less than the $824 million the state was just granted in schools COVID relief).
It could help jump-start the pandemic-frozen job prospects of high school seniors and college kids. More crucially, it could reintroduce Zoom-quarantined little kids, many of them poor and falling behind, to one-on-one academic attention from another human.
That last part is priceless. Social distancing can stem the spread of a disease. But the year of our pandemic has shown how brutal isolation can be for public education. Maybe the key to a more promising 2021 involves doing the exact opposite.