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Why students need to return to school in the fall | COMMENTARY

Should Marylanders students go back to the classroom this fall? Some believe so.
Should Marylanders students go back to the classroom this fall? Some believe so. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Last week, I had a heartbreaking conversation with a Maryland mom whose previously happy child had just received an emergency evaluation for suicidal ideation. While this case may sound extreme, it is not unlike other stories I have heard recently.

As the founder of a statewide, nonpartisan group advocating to reopen schools, I have spoken to children, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, therapists and other professionals from around the state who have seen, firsthand, the harmful impact of school closures in our state. All of them agree: The effects of school closure on children are significant and harmful, and our Maryland students need to be back in school.

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As cases of coronavirus began to increase across the state this spring, parents (myself included) and school leaders alike agreed on the wisdom of closing schools as a precautionary measure. However, we now know much more about the virus: we know its true fatality rate (lower than originally projected), who transmits it (generally not children), and how often children get seriously ill (rarely). We know that numerous experts and groups, including Canadian pediatric experts, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, all advocate safely returning children to schools for face-to-face learning.

Schools provide structure, learning opportunities, peer socialization and access to caring adults. I have heard heartbreaking tales about Maryland children on suicide watch, and children who are too depressed to leave the house or who have lost years of progress because of unsatisfied special education needs. My own children struggled with the sudden lack of structure, exclusion from peers and academic decline.

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Tens of thousands of Maryland children did not participate in remote learning this past spring. How will we reach these children if school does not fully reopen? How will we educate children whose parents work full-time and are not able to supervise or support their learning on “hybrid” learning days? How will we ensure that older students left unsupervised for long days of remote instruction do not fall prey to high-risk behaviors such as drinking, drug use or inappropriate internet use?

It’s estimated that more than 200,000 cases of child abuse across the country went unreported this past spring, with teachers’ vigilant eyes not able to detect and report children at risk. How will we ensure the safety of those children in a remote model? How will we ensure an accessible, appropriate grade-level education for children with disabilities or those learning English, whose needs are not likely to be met by Zoom calls and work packets? All of these challenges will be exacerbated if schools do not open normally in the fall.

Thus far, the evidence has supported this idea of normal school reopening in the fall.

Well-respected experts have urged policymakers to consider that measures such as extreme physical distancing, masks for children and restrictions on movement are unlikely to impact viral transmission or impact significant illness in children. To the contrary, such measures are likely to have a substantial impact on students’ social interaction, emotional well-being, and academic achievement. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which a fourth grader is able to use a mask in an appropriate and sanitary manner throughout an eight-hour day. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which students can have developmentally appropriate interactions while staying six feet away from each other. Other health experts have said such invasive measures are not needed for safe reopening.

Maryland’s children deserve a realistic, transparent conversation about their needs and the path forward. We believe that returning children to school should not be a political question; Marylanders of all viewpoints should be able to weigh the evidence and have a reasoned conversation about how best to serve our children while ensuring they are safe. Children have unique needs and unique susceptibility to COVID-19, and the most responsible path forward for school reopening may look different from the path forward for other sectors of our country.

As officials evaluate options, we deserve to know that the school systems are considering the most current research and fully weighing the impact on our children. It is vital that all of us — school district leaders, state officials and community members — prioritize returning our children to school with an appropriate experience that will support their needs. We must consider all elements of this problem so that our children can return to a healthy learning environment and truly thrive.

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Christina Olson (return2learnmd@gmail.com) is founder of Return2Learn Maryland Schools, a community-based, nonpartisan group focused on practical, evidence-based, student-friendly policies for school reopening.

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