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Students, schools can lead us out of pandemic

July 22, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 2020

In the sizzling July heat, students, parents and teachers are trying their best to focus on summer. Longer days, later bedtimes, bike rides, swimming and ice cream remain simple pleasures available to most. But as COVID-19 rages, imposing closures and limitations on many normal summer activities, there is growing anxiety about what lays ahead for the coming school year.

To calm myself, I’ve been cherishing images of our Adam and Zoe on the first day of school, years past. One of my favorites is when Adam started kindergarten and Zoe second grade, both wearing clothes that showed their summer tan, backpacks and big smiles as they strolled down the alley to the big yellow school bus. Now, rising sixth and eighth graders, they, along with my wife Lori and I, anxiously await word from city officials about whether school will be fully in-person, fully online or a mix of both.

With many unknowns and no perfect solution, the decision is not easy. So, I’ve been reading, thinking and talking with others to help sort out my own thoughts about how as parents we can best support Zoe and Adam, whatever the outcome.

To state the obvious, a full in-person return to school — the normal and generally desired circumstance — is fraught with understandable concern about increased COVID exposure and transmission for students and teachers, and by extension their friends and families. In short, return to normal school could both perpetuate and accelerate the pandemic.

While online schooling from home most certainly guarantees better COVID prevention, a three-and-a-half month dose last spring made painfully clear that this approach comes with limitations.

In our home, while both Lori and I were fortunate to still have our jobs, it meant that we were unavailable to support Adam and Zoe with their school work in ways, and to the degree, we would have preferred. In single-parent households as well as households where those earning lower wages are working two or more jobs — with unpredictable hours, shift changes and limited (or no) access to sick time and family leave — it’s simply not possible for students to receive adequate parental support with school work.

Additionally, some students lack access to the devices and reliable internet service that are essential for effective home schooling. Combine with the lack of direct instruction and feedback, online schooling diminishes the prospect of learning for many, especially for those who benefit from special support and accommodations made possible by skilled educators.

As I struggle with the dilemma of whether to support in-person or online schooling, I’m generally leaning toward a hybrid model, with a mix of in-person and online learning. While not without trade-offs and certainly requiring lots of effort by school officials to overcome myriad logistical challenges, I believe this is a worthy solution in communities, such as ours, where COVID has stabilized or trended downward.

For me, at least at the moment, the deciding factor is the social benefits of in-person schooling. Humans are social beings, we learn, grow and thrive in relationship with others. The weeks or months of relative social isolation that many or most children will likely experience with home schooling is not beneficial to their developing minds and bodies.

In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the results will in many ways be detrimental. This, coupled with the understanding that, in general, the virus is not impacting children as severely as adults and children are not as likely to transmit COVID to others, the AAP is recommending that students return to school this fall.

But for me, there is an even more compelling benefit to students attending at least some school this fall. Schools are places where healthy norms can be established and reinforced, for the benefit of students, families and the broader community. Examples include the racial integration of schools and the annual requirement for a physical exam with the administration of vaccinations to thwart infections childhood diseases.

Public health experts have learned, the hard way, that changing people’s beliefs generally does not produce a change in people’s behavior. So, we can try all we want to convince people that social distancing and mask wearing are two of the best strategies for reducing COVID infections and deaths, but people are going to believe what they want to believe.

The good news, however, is that people are more likely to change their behavior when they realize that others are doing so. Again, people are social and want to belong, and they don’t want to be left out or become social outcasts.

Examples include wearing of seat belts, smoking cessation and decreases in rates of drunk driving. Each required that individuals change their behavior, regardless of their beliefs, and ultimately, the determining factor was that it became less socially acceptable to continue engaging in these unhealthy behaviors.

So, in the absence of coherent national leadership and probably many months before a vaccine is available, we need a new strategy. By working together with families, students and schools can make social distancing and mask wearing a more well-established norm, motivating behavior change and flattening the COVID curve in the process.

Along with hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, disinfecting high-touch surfaces and monitoring health daily, a campaign to make social distancing and mask wearing cool — and non-compliance uncool — is a strategy that students and schools can champion. While I’m not without concern, I’m confident that Zoe, Adam and their peers are up to the challenge and fully capable of playing a critical role in leading a culture change that will serve and protect us for years to come.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

One Comment leave one →
  1. Pat Kapitzky permalink
    July 22, 2020 12:41 pm

    Your column 7/22/20 reminder me of the music teacher- and the whole staff at my HighSchool in Niskayuna, NY, taught us that being in the choir was cool. ( valuable, admirable)we had an enormous choir. All the football players, and top scholars were in it. There was a perpetuity choir that fed into the senior choir. As you said, “Healthy norms were established and reinforced for the benefit of the students.” Loved your article.( Retired Music Teacher) Pat Kapitzky

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