COVID is the Iceberg that Sinks the Public School System

Covid 19 is going to change how many things are done around the world even long after it’s gone, and some for the better. Business leaders are already blown away by how the virus has spurred technology innovations and changes to corporate culture. Reforms that would have taken years or never come to fruition at all are happening overnight in Lockdown Land. Telemedicine is taking off, for example, and companies are embracing the benefits of telecommuting to save on office space and travel expenses.

One casualty of the Covid innovation revolution is going to be the public school system. Last spring this “unsinkable” juggernaut of political, financial, and cultural power, steaming along at full speed, hit the iceberg. This fall that ship will break apart.

On Thursday afternoon, the House Education Committee held a three plus hour special meeting to hear from school officials about how they are preparing to open for the coming school year. The list of witnesses included several superintendents, representatives for teachers and principals, and the secretary of education. (Note: no parents!) The short answer to the question, though, is: they haven’t a clue, and it won’t end well.

House Ed Hearing Part 1:

House Ed Hearing Part 2:

The principals don’t know how many staff they’ll have. One superintendent did a survey and 50% of her staff were either high risk for Covid or lived with someone who is. Teachers are waiting to hear what the plan is before they decide if they’ll take part or part ways. Principals don’t know how many students they’ll have. Secretary Dan French testified that parents filing to homeschool are officially up 75% over last year, but the one agency employee who handles this is overwhelmed and that number is likely already larger and is likely to keep increasing as parents learn more about what’s really in store for the new year.

Libby Bonesteel, Superintendent of Schools, Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools, opined that the schools are totally unprepared for the health aspects of this crisis. She pointed out that the symptoms of Covid 19 are symptoms school kids exhibit all the time. What are they supposed to do if a student has, for example, diarrhea – the number one Covid symptom for young kids — also brought on by a bad mix of junk food? Assume it’s Covid? Shut down the school? If multiple kids exhibit symptoms such as fever, which she said is normal for four or five kids to exhibit at a time in a school, how can the school isolate them all? There is no space and outside doesn’t work in January. What if a child or teacher actually does test positive for Covid? There are no answers to these questions. “I understand the safety guidance,” said Bonesteel, “but when it’s put into reality in a school building, it’s just not realistic.”

Watching these three hours of testimony – and every parent with a child in the public school system should watch – it’s clear that the public school model of putting lots of kids in higher population classrooms is incompatible with a pandemic. Neither parents nor teacher it seems are comfortable with this structure. Parents are seeking other options, such as home schooling, micro-schools, “pandemic pods,” or hiring tutors for just their own families.

The state needs to divert funding away from the model that doesn’t work and support the new models that do. And this needs to happen quickly, especially for low income families that don’t have the resources to pursue other, safer, more reliable and effective options. Parents and kids can’t afford another year of uncertainty, instability, and no learning.  

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