Derek Thompson: The truth about kids, school, and COVID-19
Mitigation measures create trust. So does collaboration. So here’s an idea: Every school should have a committee of school staff, parents, and, where appropriate, students to plan for and respond to safety issues. These committees can conduct health-and-safety walk-throughs this summer, as we just did in Washington, D.C., at McKinley Technology High School and McKinley Middle School.
Here’s another idea: Let’s integrate the best practices for both health and learning.
One way is to link class size to the CDC’s revised guidance that, with universal masking, students should remain three feet apart in classrooms. For the most part, this will mean fewer students in each class—effectively aligning health and pedagogical best practices. Smaller class size has been shown to have a positive impact on academic achievement, suspension rates, and teacher retention. So why don’t school systems work through the summer to find adequate space in order to set up classes they can keep intact all school year? The constant reconfiguring of classrooms and classes is part of what has created such uncertainty during the pandemic.
This change will also help end the untenable practice of simultaneous teaching. This juggling act requires teachers to essentially teach two classes, in two different modalities—one with kids in a classroom, and one with kids online—at the same time. This is not just unsustainable; it’s educationally disastrous.
The AFT does a back-to-school campaign every year to engage with members. This year, we are dedicating $5 million to this effort. We’ll still connect with teachers and school staff, but we’ll also reach out to families and communities about the value of children returning to school in-person.
From San Francisco to Kanawha, West Virginia; from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, to Minneapolis; from pre-K to higher education—we are developing programs and deploying activists to this campaign like we would for get-out-the-vote efforts.
Members of some of our local chapters, such as the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, will go door-to-door, visiting students’ homes to talk about the health-and-safety and education programs in place at schools, and to encourage families to send their children back for in-person learning.
In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers is advocating for schools to hold open houses for parents, to show them health safeguards and other resources, to answer questions, and to build trust.
United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union are participating in COVID-19 vaccination events for students, families, and communities. The CTU is calling on the mayor and the school district to join its members over the summer in engaging with the majority of families that have opted thus far to stick with remote learning, and encouraging them to return.