When the words COVID and schools are in the same sentence, there is often controversy. Because of the COVID pandemic, many school systems across the country have had either empty or near empty schools since March of 2020. This is not the case in Shreveport-Bossier and Northwest Louisiana.
For that, we can thank our education leaders, school boards, teacher organizations, principals, teachers, and school staff. They worked together to open our schools for face-to-face teaching and gave the choice of in-school learning to every family in our community. Through this school year, they stuck with their decision to keep schools open even when case rates temporarily increased this winter.
Education leaders in our communities have followed the science. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages in-school teaching. They note the risk to children of health complications of COVID is extremely small while negative academic, social, and emotional consequences are great. Studies confirm children under 14 are much less likely to suffer life-threatening complications of COVID than with seasonal flu or pneumonia.
The main question parents and policy leaders have been asking is it is safe to send children to school. The other question to ask is if it is safe not to? For those children who returned to in-school learning, benefits have been substantial. Children are social creatures and in-school learning and contact with caring adults and peers reduces the consequences of the virus. Great teachers help students navigate through the pandemic.
This has been a fragmented school year. COVID has had a negative impact on literacy, academic achievement, school attendance, and mental health in children. The question for each one of us is how to help our schools overcome the setbacks of 2020-21.
These setbacks are a problem that will require solutions involving wholesale community support – support from government, health, and education leaders; business, faith-based, and nonprofit organizations; and parents and families.
From education, health, and government policymakers, there must be resource support and courageous leadership. The resource support is available in the form of significant federal COVID dollars. This revenue should be accompanied by courageous leadership to reduce barriers to in-school learning by being less strict in quarantine and classroom size restrictions. As we see the results of widespread vaccination, restrictions will need to be re-examined and loosened as community immunity is reached.
The reality is there has been a loss of quality teaching time with students this school year due to illness and quarantines. Based on information on achievement gaps this school year, schools will likely need to dedicate more time on task to literacy and basic math during the final couple of months of school. During this concentrated effort in the spring, school districts will develop systems to identify those children with the greatest need for more instruction.
Summer will be the time to work with those who have fallen the farthest behind during the pandemic. The money allocated to school systems by Congress will allow for school-based summer camps across our community. Businesses, faith-based and nonprofit organizations should support these efforts any way they can.
As we prepare for the next school year in the fall, schools and parents will make decisions again about in-school and virtual learning. This process should factor in new positive expectations resulting from the COVID vaccine. The concerns and unknowns in the spring and fall of 2020 are reduced significantly with the completion of widespread community vaccination by the summer of 2021. By the time school starts again in the fall, anyone who desires a vaccination will have had one and the rate of complications of COVID-19 is likely to be extremely low.
In the coming 2021-22 school year, we will hopefully be dealing with COVID as we do other endemic infectious diseases like seasonal flu and pneumonia. We can’t continue to sacrifice in-school face-to-face teaching waiting for COVID-19. We need to accept the reality that COVID will still be with us for years to come but the complication rate will be markedly reduced with widespread vaccination. This should convert much of our fear and anxiety to confidence and hope.
Our schools have worked hard over the past school year but there is much to be done over the next few months and the 2021-22 school year. No one has escaped the wrath of the COVID pandemic but the struggle of families with preschool and school-age children has been particularly hard. As immunity is bolstered in everyone by vaccines, it is time to overcome the negative impact of COVID on our children and a time to get closer to normal – especially in our community schools and our young families.
Dr. Phillip Rozeman is a practicing cardiologist. He is founder of the Alliance for Education and Education’s Next Horizon and past Chief of Staff of Willis-Knighton Health System.