As back-to-school season approaches, an increasing number of school districts have abandoned plans for in-person classes or hybrid arrangements and, instead, are opting for an all-virtual start to the fall semester. Some districts have committed to distance learning only for the first few weeks of the school year, holding out the possibility — and hope — of in-person instruction, but many others plan for students to learn remotely through the rest of 2020. Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties most recently decided to switch to all distance learning, joining districts in Maryland and Virginia that include Prince George’s County, Arlington and Prince William. D.C. has yet to announce its plans.
School officials describe a wrenching process in deciding to keep classrooms closed. There were strong feelings on both sides of the debate and no one, even those who favored remote learning as the safest approach at this point, could argue that virtual learning is any kind of a satisfactory replacement for in-person learning. Children — particularly those from at-risk populations — suffer academically, and there are social and health benefits when children interact with their teachers and each other, not to mention the hardships to working families when children are forced to stay at home. That the crash rollout of online learning in March as the pandemic hit proved disastrous only added to the dilemma.
But, as Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Scott Braband said in explaining why remote learning was the best option, “The numbers do not lie.” There has been a surge of covid-19 across the country and many communities are having to deal with higher rates of infection than were present at the start of the outbreak. If Mr. Trump wanted to take constructive action to get children back in the classroom, he would put in place the testing and other safeguards needed to control the virus rather than just browbeating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into becoming a cheerleader for his political agenda or trotting out his education secretary with absurd theories of how children actually block the virus.
Children may be less at risk of contracting the virus but the science is not at all clear and there are many uncertainties; the concern about transmission to teachers and other school staff is quite real. We urge schools to continue to explore safe ways for children to return to school as soon as possible. In the meantime, it is important they significantly improve remote learning. There is not much time before the start of school; districts must focus on getting teachers prepared, improving lesson plans and equipping students with the tools they need to learn outside the classroom.