OPINION: Back to school with COVID, risk and consequence – Claremore Daily Progress

Posted: September 2, 2020 at 1:53 am

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It seems most agree that returning students to the classroom is more important than ever. The pressures to do so statewide are increasing, but not just because students need to be there. As long as children remain home from school, the economy cannot fully recover, at least, the kind of economy we knew only months ago. And something else to consider, school response to COVID may be ushering in new attitudes about education, both K-12 and higher education, regarding how we educate, how much it should cost, and their relative value propositions.

Without getting into higher education right now, the case for getting kids back to school goes like this. The risk of COVID-19 for children is relatively low. Sustained sheltering at home has delayed the education and the socialization most students need. There are damaging health and mental health effects, as well as the fear of increased abuse at home, for some children. Furthermore, many people depend on schools for subsidized meals, and sometimes, counseling and health screening. As for the parents, most need their kids in a school building so they can work. The economy, whether one is an employer or an employee, simply cant fully recover if school buildings remain closed to students. And while virtual learning options address one problem, they will still put a burden on family members to find a way to have an adult at home, or some kind of supervision for their children.

Parents will decide how much risk they want to take, given their own family situations, capabilities, and resources, not unlike all the many other factors that must be weighed on a daily basis. A pediatrician friend made sure I knew that our medical community and infrastructure can adequately manage COVID, but our kids need to go back to school. My brother, an emergency room doctor with advance degree work in pharmacology, says the same thing. Teachers and administrators, however, especially the older ones, are in a tough spot, but one that is no different than so many others whose employers expect them to go to work, regardless of how they feel about conditions. Other people need and want to work, but are sidelined because their companies are sidelined.

Will teachers come to work, and under what conditions? I think they will if school boards decide to open up, with precautions, even though the states largest teachers union insists they wont be returning to the classroom unless their demands are met. The largest districts have opted to make another run at exclusively virtual instruction for the time being, although we learn now that some are allowing teachers to bring their children into school buildings, that are closed to everyone elses kids, for their supervised virtual learning. I suppose that solves their childcare issues. Parents want to support their teachers, but when they are being pressed to return to work themselves, with limited childcare options, and see their children used as leverage once again (the teacher walkout wont soon be forgotten) well, it may be one reason teachers get a bum rap as a group sometimes.

These broad generalizations really dont serve us well. Each school district is unique and will make its own decisions. We are investing millions of extra state and federal tax dollars to enable a return to the classroom, and to provide virtual learning capabilities and options. I salute the teachers who will do everything they can to face their fears and deliver in the classroom. The real challenge for the schools that bring their students into the buildings will be how they react when someone gets the virus, as they inevitably will. But if the issue becomes more about adult working conditions, and less about the students, parents will insist on other educational options for their children, demanding they take their tax dollars with them.

Most folks believe the best educational model is a physical classroom led by a competent teacher, with some exceptions for individual student needs. Now that health and safety concerns have forced a review of alternatives, and implementation of a patchwork of models-- in-class, or online coursework, or virtual classes, or some combination-- I think our COVID experience will have us all reconsidering how to best educate our children. Will parents, or teachers, or students learn they like a different educational model? Will results improve? Will we all be open to exploring the possibilities? Will those who criticize the virtual model continue to do so if they, themselves, turn to that model during these days? If public schools dont handle this right, I think the school choice movement will only grow. And I also think COVID wont be going away anytime soon, so there will be a lot of time to observe, study, and ponder these and other questions.

While parents and school officials wrestle with what to do, legislators are attentively observing. The state covers about 55% of education expense in Oklahoma, and we want to ensure the money is spent well, but we also have our own policy initiatives, and this kind of crisis can inform future legislation. After all, a short time ago the issue was teacher pay raises, funding levels, and standards, all with an eye towards improving academic performance.

With another pessimistic budget picture, there are legitimate questions. If school buildings arent open, or are on a reduced schedule, should funding be shifted to some other tax-supported agencies and programs clearly needing some help, especially since federal and state COVID funds were injected into education to compensate for related challenges? What about transportation savings if buses arent running? Will the next budget cycle see schools with large carryovers as a result such that state funding can actually be reduced without harm? Was the extra COVID funding sufficient, and used productively? Or were normal operating funds also required to cope with the extra COVID precautions? How do you sort all that out when some schools are wide open, and others are completely virtual? For those that shifted exclusively to virtual learning, how well did that work? What student/teacher ratio was really required?

I spoke with a superintendent recently about all of the above, and found his attitude about the educational models refreshing. In short, he is urging his staff to stop thinking of the traditional public school and the virtual programs in terms of us and them. Students and their parents will ultimately decide how to go to school. They are all our kids, so lets meet them where they are or want to be, in person or virtually, or both, and then be better than anyone else at teaching them in that space. Good advice, and from my perspective, a welcome competitive spirit leading that school district.

During the interim between sessions, you can call my office at 405-557-7380, or write to me at Representative Mark Lepak, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd, Rm. 453B, State Capitol Building, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105.

State Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore) is best reached via email at mark.lepak@okhouse.gov.

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OPINION: Back to school with COVID, risk and consequence - Claremore Daily Progress

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