Sometime soon, Gov. Walz is expected to announce a decision about whether or not schools will be allowed to reopen this fall. It is certainly the subject I have heard about most recently.
Before we dive into this subject, let’s start with two certainties upon which we all agree:
First, of course COVID-19 is dangerous, and we must take it seriously.
Second, none of us really knows what will happen with the virus in the coming weeks or months.
Both of those statements in isolation could lead one to suggest shutting everything back down and staying home until we find a vaccine. That simply isn’t realistic. We must balance the dangers of COVID against the dangers of locking down society. We weigh these risks and benefits all the time. For example, we have determined that there are essentials, like food and supplies, for which the benefits outweigh the risks.
I can think of no business more essential than schools. It is not only our constitutional responsibility; it is our moral responsibility as well. With nine out of ten parents surveyed by Education Trust reporting that they were worried about their child falling behind due to COVID-related closures, it’s clear that our goal should be to get students back into classrooms with their teachers safely, if at all possible.
The nation’s leading experts agree. The American Association of Pediatrics has said, “The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, said, “I'm of the point of view as a public health leader in this nation, that having the schools actually closed is a greater public health threat to the children than having the schools reopen.”
There are collateral effects of closing schools. Special education concerns. Behavior issues. Mental health concerns. Nutrition concerns. Isolation and lack of socialization. Many families turn to schools for help with these critical needs, but those needs went unaddressed.
Now that we have established the benefits of students being present in the classroom, we have to ask ourselves: what are the risks?
In the New York Times, Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatrician with the American Association of Pediatrics, said “School-age kids clearly play a role in driving influenza rates within communities. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Covid-19.”
Other research has found that students are not just unlikely to catch COVID, they are poor transmitters of it as well. Countries that have reopened their schools have also found that it did not contribute to spreading the coronavirus, according to both Reuters and Science Magazine.
One thing we know with absolute certainty in education: one-size-fits-all is rarely the best approach. That is especially true in this case. Minneapolis students have far different needs than students in Stewartville or Floodwood or Swanville. Those districts should be able to determine on their own how to reopen in the best interests of their students.
Yes, COVID is serious. But students need to get back to school safely, and only school districts can determine how and when to do so. We should let them use their expertise, their relationships with their parents and students, and their knowledge of their local circumstances to make that decision on their own.
Only the governor’s executive orders are preventing them from doing so.
Sen. Carla Nelson is chair of the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee, and a former teacher.