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A blue ribbon commission is needed to chart a path to reopening for schools | COMMENTARY

Teachers and their supporters participate in the Harford County Education Association car caravan, left, while other groups advocate for the reopening of Maryland schools during a Harford County Board of Education meeting in Dec. 21.
Teachers and their supporters participate in the Harford County Education Association car caravan, left, while other groups advocate for the reopening of Maryland schools during a Harford County Board of Education meeting in Dec. 21. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Across the state and around the country, school systems continue to be challenged in charting a path to school reopening. Efforts to sustain the education of children most at risk are flagging, with educators growing increasingly concerned that chronic absenteeism is skyrocketing as COVID learning fatigue has set in.

As parents across the country actively wrestle with the choices before them, new choices have emerged for the most privileged among us: home-schools, microschools, learning pods and private tutoring are thriving in the face of continuing concerns around returning to in-person schooling. However, for the balance of the country, and for our most vulnerable children in particular, these options are completely out of reach. The longer that this pandemic persists unabated without a national plan for reopening our nation’s schools, the greater the prospect of permanent disruption to the well-being of our most vulnerable children and to the landscape of public education as we know it.

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One way to move forward is to establish a blue ribbon commission whose members include a diverse representation of parents, students, teachers, district administrators, school design experts, ethicists, public health officials and others who can together chart a realistic path to school reopening, one that can engender trust and confidence in parents, children, teachers and staff across the country.

Roughly 10 months into this pandemic, a blue ribbon commission would be positioned to examine best practices from school systems large and small, within the U.S. and around the world, that have been able to successfully reopen, and to identify key data and evidence gaps that still remain. Beyond considering items like improving the antiquated ventilation systems in older buildings and expanding safe transportation options, the commission could add both specificity and teeth to calls for significant investment in providing sufficient and ongoing personal protective equipment for students and educators. The same could be done for financial resources for testing and contact tracing staff in every school.

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This commission could also make specific recommendations for the establishment of a federal tracking database, to be coordinated with state education and health officials, that establishes a mandated methodology for collecting and reporting virus transmission metrics, cases and onward transmission in schools, and detailed local reopening metrics.

A blue ribbon commission could also make longer-term recommendations about how we can permanently reduce the density of students in our existing schools, not just to reduce risk during a pandemic, but to promote learning and student well-being at all times. The commission could also make recommendations to higher education and funding agencies about how to address the previously existing challenge of teacher shortages that is continuing only to get worse in this pandemic.

Perhaps most importantly, as a nation, we finally need to make the investment to ensure that every child has access to the technology and digital literacy that will enable them to regularly learn online for at least some portion of the school day, during but also well past the pandemic. The idea that nearly a quarter of America’s schoolchildren do not have sufficient access to high-speed quality internet service and/or a reliable device that will support their efforts to learn is a national disgrace. As we look to rebuild our country on the other side of this pandemic, a blue ribbon commission could recommend to the Federal Communications Commission that it prioritize expanding E-Rate, the program that assists schools in obtaining affordable telecommunications and internet access, to the homes of all students who qualify for free and reduced meals as a national priority.

Many families have already personally experienced the devastating impact of a COVID-19 diagnosis in their homes and communities. Despite public health recommendations, growing angst over returning to school as cases rise exponentially will persist without a credible national vision that restores the public’s confidence in the safety of classroom instruction for all students. The coronavirus has potentially disrupted learning for a generation. Not only do our children, their families and our educators deserve this investment to make a solid course correction, America’s future depends on it.

Annette Campbell Anderson (Annette.anderson@jhu.edu), Megan Collins (mcolli36@jhmi.edu) and Ruth Faden (rfaden@jhu.edu) are the founders of the Johns Hopkins University eSchools+ Initiative. Sara Johnson (sjohnson@jhu.edu), Beth Marshall (bmarsha2@jhu.edu) and Alan Regenberg (alanr@jhu.edu) also contributed to this report.

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