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Private schools could teach public systems about COVID - if they’re willing | COMMENTARY

St. Martin's Lutheran School of Annapolis is taking steps, such as spreading desks out 6 feet in classrooms, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when it reopens in the fall, according to Head of School Patrick Kiley, who shows off a fourth grade classroom here.
St. Martin's Lutheran School of Annapolis is taking steps, such as spreading desks out 6 feet in classrooms, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when it reopens in the fall, according to Head of School Patrick Kiley, who shows off a fourth grade classroom here. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

As a public health professional, statistician and Baltimore City mother whose firstborn entered kindergarten this year, I’ve been combing the COVID-19 statistics like a hawk — moving in rotation from the city and state dashboards, to dashboards of Johns Hopkins, the COVID Tracking Project and others. The rotation is ludicrous. Not a single one provides the information that I’m craving: What is happening with schools?

Public schools in every one of Maryland’s 26 counties began this school year virtually. And as they creep, slowly, toward reopening, the lack of information for parents and educators is astounding. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can learn from the experiences of Maryland’s private schools.

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Last year, more than 130,000 children were enrolled in nonpublic schools in Maryland, more than 10% of the total school population. How many of these children have returned to brick and mortar schools, and under what model of education? What kinds of protective measures and accommodations have the private schools deployed to satisfy their customers? (Yes, private school parents are paying customers). How many of these students have tested positive or have had an exposure that has led to virtual instruction for the class? And what of the teachers and staff at these schools? Do they feel safe?

Minimally, the state departments of education and health should be reporting cases found among those attending or working in these schools. Yet, that only scratches the surface of what I would argue is fair and transparent information for parents. Let’s also solicit the instructional status, reentry timelines and precautions being taken among all 1,300 or so private schools in Maryland (360 of them K-12). The state already approved the school plans, so make them public.

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Then, share case numbers among children attending day care and in-person instruction, by county and date. Historical data — from March onward — is essential for the public to understand how cases among children relate to overall caseloads, removal of lockdown restrictions and reentry into school. How have the private schools fared? How can public schools use these lessons to make return to school for their nearly 900,000 students and their teachers as safe as possible?

Finally, it is embarrassing that Maryland relies upon an external data source to prove that schools are relatively safe. On Oct. 26, State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon, in yet another push for local jurisdictions to reopen, made a number of statements that deserve a closer look, not from a lens, as insinuated, of partisan politics or agendas, but from that of a concerned, well-informed parent. For example, Superintendent Salmon quoted the work of economist Emily Oster, who has embarked on a personal research project, soliciting schools nationwide to enroll in voluntarily reporting cases, enrollees, protective measures and key demographics. While Ms. Oster should be applauded for attempting to fill the screaming void of school-related COVID information, her research — the same research that Superintendent Salmon and others are using to make the case to return in person — contained  fewer than 1,000 schools with any in-person instruction. Of these, only five schools from Maryland provided any data.  (The most recent data now includes New York schools, increasing the nationwide, but not Maryland, total).

We can, and must, do better.

Not only should all Maryland public and private schools participate fully in making their COVID-related decisions and data open to all, but the state of Maryland should be leading the way for governmental data reporting standards, building the trust that is so needed among parents, teachers and school systems so that our children can be back in school, where they belong. Many parents are being asked to make the decision of whether to send their children back to a hybrid model, or remain virtual. Let us not mistake the reluctance to return to the school building for a love of the status quo, but recognize it for what it is — parents, striving in an information void, to make the best decisions they can. Fill the void, and more children may return to school.

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Nirali Chakraborty has a doctorate in Public Health from Johns Hopkins. Her email is nirali@m4mgmt.org.

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