The choice should not have had to be returning to an unsafe school or learning online from home.

What happened at Paulding County High School or Etowah High School was unacceptable and — justifiably — is one of the many reasons that people have feared allowing students to return to school this fall.

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Paulding County High School, August 4, 2020
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Etowah High School, August 3, 2020

However, our federal, state, and local governments have failed us in myriad ways, not the least of which being the fact that masks mandates are still being debated and people are still not social distancing and are going out to bars, strip clubs, and theme parks. 

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The fact that this was politicized — from both sides — from the beginning sabotaged our attempts at collaboratively working towards a solution. (This post is already too long to get into that.)

All that aside, here we are in August and we are trying to figure out how to pay the bills, stay safe, and educate our children. The arguments for online learning are understandable and rational given the fact that many districts won’t mandate the wearing of masks, the federal government isn’t providing adequate funding to prepare for back-to-school, and no one seems to be able to provide a roadmap to safe in-person learning. 

But I’m going to try to make the argument that we must find a way to return to in-person learning because the stakes are too high and the negative impacts are far-reaching. I will also argue that this can be done safely. I know this will open me up to mass criticism from many of my friends, but I feel compelled to say something.

What are the problems?


Women losing ground in the workplace

(Just read this whole article)

This article featured on The 19th and PBS says it perfectly, so I’ll just quote it here:

“Women continue to earn less than men, with White women making 79 cents on the White male dollar, Black women making 62 cents, Native American women making 57 cents and Latinas making 54 cents. 

“What women in America are living now is the consequence of years of occupational segregation that kept them out of managerial positions, stuck in low-paying jobs with few safeguards like paid sick leave.”

When a two-parent, male-female household has to decide whose career is going to take a break to help with their children’s online schooling, because men often earn more than the woman, the woman is left with a difficult decision to make. Unfortunately, for many women, they have left the workforce entirely — hoping to return at some point. I’ve heard from many of my friends that they are dropping out of the workforce or deferring graduate school because they are going to have to stay home and facilitate virtual learning with their young children.

Again, this article (also featured on PBS NewsHour stated: “Mothers in 2020’s pandemic have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers to care for children in a nation that hasn’t created a strong caregiving foundation…As it stands, about 8 percent of women who have been laid off have zero chance of being called back to the workforce compared to 6.4 percent of men, according to an analysis by EPI. Another 4 percent expect to be called back but likely will not.”

The longer the pandemic lasts, and the longer the schools stay closed, the more tragic the outcomes for women.

Achievement Gap Widening

This topic has been the focus of study for many, so I encourage you to read the scholarship on this issue. Here is one article from the McKinsey Institute. 

Much of the inequality that exists in our country will continue to show up in remote learning. See the graphics below (and if you still doubt, there is much research done on this topic, so you can easily find more).

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When I was finishing this past school year teaching sophomore English students, many of my students did not submit even ONE (1) assignment. Many never even logged on. Much of that is due to factors outside their control: loss of internet access, lack of device access, child care responsibilities, displacement, lack of motivation, or just plain confusion. National data for lack of student engagement during Spring 2020 is hard to come by, but collections of teacher, parent, and student surveys can be found in several places, including here. Most horrifying was this fact: “51% of teachers in high-poverty schools reported that most of their students were participating daily in distance learning. For affluent schools, the number was 84%.”

I wish that I could say that this school year will be different, but with people’s economic situations worsening, evictions increasing, and jobs disappearing, I can’t imagine it will be better.

I’m a long-time advocate and participant in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools. I’ve taught in them and sent my children to them. But this year is causing a cataclysmic series of conflicts to take place. I’m distraught.

I’ve left the teaching profession to attend law school so that I can practice housing, immigration, and criminal law, and in doing so, have bemoaned the colliding of my first year of law school with another semester of online learning for my five- and seven-year-old daughters. My husband works full-time and is unable to effectively keep his job and teach our children. 

My mind hasn’t stopped running: Should I risk failing my first year of law school (or simply withdraw) just so that my kids don’t “get ahead” by attending face-to-face classes at a private school? Is that what my principles require of me? But wouldn’t that contribute to inequality for women? Does attempting to do virtual learning make my daughters’ public school more equitable? I hear the ringing of “hypocrite” in my mind constantly. My daughters were supposed to go to our neighborhood public school, Cary Reynolds; they weren’t supposed to go to private school.

I know I’m not the only parent who is considering some drastic change of course. Many parents who can afford to or have the connections are creating “pandemic pods,” hiring a tutor to teach their kids and their friends’ kids. Some are sending their kids to private schools that have decided to open safely. But thousands of families — those without means or social connections — are stuck in the world of virtual learning. 

I have often blogged about the benefits of socially and racially integrated schools, but I’m not sure doing virtual learning while isolated in my house with my kids qualifies as achieving that.

To be sure, this most definitely exacerbates inequality. But if public schools aren’t open, there really is nothing that can stop the deepening of the inequality because everyone is just doing what they can to get by.

Teachers are essential to our society

Fast-food, clothing stores, and grocery workers are required to come in to work. And if they decide they don’t want to, they don’t get unemployment — they can be fired

Teaching face-to-face is important and valuable.

In my mind, and as a former teacher, I am unsure why we as a society have decided that so many low-wage workers, who come into contact with hundreds of customers daily must return to work while we are not allowing teachers who would be willing to come to work (and students who would be willing to come to school) to do so. (I’ll explain my thoughts on blended learning later.) This double standard seems upsetting because these same workers who are going to work at Shoe Carnival (to make less than $25,000/year) are then also unable to send their children to school because the schools aren’t allowed to open (and they’re probably unable to pay for childcare).

(Granted, being in a small space with a group of kids for hours is different than standing at a check-out counter, but I will address this below in the “proposed solutions” portion.)

Our Double Standard

If people making minimum wage can’t both keep their jobs and stay home to teach their children, it’s difficult to understand how they are supposed to care for their kids. Perhaps while states had shelter-in-place orders and businesses were closed, they weren’t allowed to work and were therefore receiving unemployment benefits. However, once states decided to reopen, and the essential workers list was revised to include everything from bowling alleys to hair salons and coffee shops, these parents had to return to work. 

“Workers cannot refuse suitable work and get any kind of unemployment benefits, says Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. They also can’t remain on unemployment simply because benefits pay them more than what they’d earn after returning to work. The Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration additionally makes it clear that a general fear of exposure to the virus isn’t enough to refuse work or quit your job.”

Some of our lowest paid workers are being forced back into work, in some industries that — I would argue — would not have as big of a ripple effect as education and childcare. I believe the disregard for in-person learning and childcare communicates a very hard truth for working women and their children.

The reality.

And to be honest, I’ve already heard of single mothers leaving their children at home unattended so that they can go to work to provide food and shelter for their family. To continue with online schooling, ignores the very real fact that young children will be neglected during the coming months, and this should trouble all of us.

These long-lasting, horrifying effects spur me to advocate for a SAFE reopening of schools. Unfortunately, because our federal and state governments are not allocating enough money to do this effectively, the situation for children and families will only continue to worsen. (So perhaps this list is useless.)

Here I will offer some solutions that, I believe, if MANDATED and FUNDED, could bring students back into the school safely. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Proposed Solutions


  1. The federal government needs to allocate billions more dollars to public schools. This is the ONLY way that schools can have the tools they need to open safely.

  2. REQUIRE MASKS BE WORN AT ALL TIMES, take temperatures before school every day, and don’t permit students/teachers with symptoms to be permitted entry to the school.

  3. Teachers willing to teach in-person should be allowed to teach; those who aren’t, should be able to teach their classes virtually.

  4. Teachers who teach in-person should be given generous hazard pay ($25,000 bonuses).

  5. Students who do not feel comfortable returning to school, should be able to opt to learn online via live-streamed classes. Additionally, students whose parents are UNABLE to stay home should be allowed first preference into schools. Students with a stay-at-home, unemployed parent who can facilitate virtual learning should enroll as “virtual students,” and if there is space, they could enroll their kids in face-to-face learning.

  6. To reduce class sizes, schools should use portable learning pods (i.e. trailers) to create more space within the schools. Other facilities (churches, civic centers, libraries, etc.) could also be used to create more space to facilitate smaller class sizes necessary for social distancing.

  7. To address the teacher shortage, districts could hire substitute teachers (with hazard pay) to facilitate learning. These substitutes could supervise while teachers taught via live-stream, or students could get their assignments and then work in class while supervised.

  8. Don’t permit mass student class changes; have teachers rotate to different cohorts of students.

  9. Students will have pre-made lunch delivered to their classrooms or students could choose to bring their own lunch.

  10. Have a plexi-glass screen between the teacher (at the front of the room) and the students. Students and teachers must maintain social distance of 6 feet at all times.

  11. If the above 10 proscriptions are followed with integrity, if a case of coronavirus breaks out in a class, only that class would need to quarantine — and they could move that class to virtual learning during that time.

Additional Thought: Another solution could be to allow all high school students to do online learning, thereby freeing up the high schools as spaces to have additional classrooms for middle and elementary schools. This could work because high school students are legally allowed to be left at home alone, and while this would be less than ideal, it would create more classrooms for lower grades to have smaller class sizes and to effectively achieve social distance requirements.

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Conclusion


I realize this is not an exhaustive list, and I also realize it would take a sophisticated, coordinated effort (that would take several weeks to complete). However, we should have been doing this during this past summer instead of partisan fighting or burying our heads in the sand thinking everything would just magically fix itself.

I would encourage smaller school districts who are going back to school to implement these procedures (as opposed to the free-for-all we have been seeing in the news). And I would encourage districts struggling with the idea of having thousands of students fall behind their international and national peers to begin discerning ways that they might implement this or other procedures during the coming weeks.

My biggest concern is that those with means are going to keep learning [safely] this year. Children in other countries around the world are going to keep learning [safely]. But what is going to happen in our most vulnerable communities? It’s up to our government and our school districts to find a way to ensure the answer to this question is the same, otherwise we are going to see our crisis worsen and lengthen, and we will fall further behind.