Every fall, the rituals of back-to-school send children and teens and teachers and — let’s be honest, everyone — into a flurry of anticipation over fresh starts and new opportunities. Pencils are sharpened, laptop keyboards are dusted, lunches are packed, new backpacks are zipped, first-day-of-school outfits are laid out, and nerves ignite! But this year, September doesn’t look like that for most anyone. Instead, conversations everywhere are centered around the tradeoffs of returning to school in-person or moving to online learning.
Both options have costs. Some estimates put closing schools for COVID-19 at a whopping $700 billion in lost revenue and productivity, nationally. And schools provide critical child care services for working parents. If children can’t return to school, many parents will be forced to cut back on hours or leave their jobs altogether. On the other hand, reopening schools during the COVID crisis could cost each district at least $1.8 million — an unsustainable amount of unplanned-for funding for most cities. And there are obvious health risks to reopening schools — not just for children themselves, but also for the teachers and other adults who interact with them every day, and the families those children return home to in the evening.
In Allegheny County, almost 136,000 students attend 43 different public school districts, each with unique reopening plans. Data collected and compiled by Allies for Children shows that as of August 28, 42% of districts were planning to offer total remote learning for all students, 47% were offering some sort of “blended” reopening with a mix of in-person and remote learning for students; and 12% were planning for a full in-person reopen (with a virtual option for students to opt into).
So, what’s the answer? What should schools do?
I’m a strong believer in the value of school — not just as a means to support a robust economy and allow women in particular to participate in the workforce — but also as a way to support children’s social and emotional well-being and as one potential (though nearly always flawed) vehicle for opportunity. I worry about the equity implications for kids who might fall further behind in their learning because of the inability to access remote learning resources. And I also worry about the spread of COVID-19 among children, and among their families and the community at large.
I don’t know what the answer is. Or if there even IS an answer.
Children are resilient little beings, and many will adapt to these bizarre new circumstances and continue to learn and socialize in new ways.
Yet some things give me hope: Allegheny County, for its part, is offering a creative and thoughtful response to its districts’ disparate reopening plans, with “Community Learning Hubs” meant to support children and families who need child care and in-person safe spaces the most. Children are resilient little beings, and many will adapt to these bizarre new circumstances and continue to learn and socialize in new ways. And I believe that parents are strong and creative superheroes who will continue to find ways to support their families, as they’ve been doing for generations. At Fourth Economy, we’ll continue to examine the potential impacts of these educational changes not only on the economy, but also on children and families specifically. Through that examination, we hope to deepen our understanding of where communities need support the most.
As certain as we all are about the coming of fall — the leaves changing color, the cicadas quieting, the nights cooling — this September, we will all continue to face the uncertainty of a school year unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
Source Notes: Number of children in Allegheny County public schools is based on the PA Department of Education’s 2018-2019 school year enrollment data.