Teacher Miriam Hernandez works with a student during an assignment.
Teacher Miriam Hernandez works with a dual-language students during an assignment at Esparza Elementary School in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Instead of seeing my kids off each morning and heading to the office like I would any other year, this fall I’ll be facilitating my daughters’ school days, helping them log on to Zoom and keeping them on track with their assignments.

I know this is a privilege.

For families who lack access to high-speed internet and appropriate devices for each of their children and who may rely on schools for special needs education, nutritional support, a safe place for their children to be while parents are at work, and for the many other services that our schools provide to our children in most need, having a parent stay home to supervise and aid in online learning just isn’t an option.

Now is the time to rethink the role our schools play in our communities to serve those in most need, while keeping our teachers and children safe. In order to do so, schools should remain closed and online learning should be provided for students until public health experts indicate community spread is under control and conditions allow for a safe return with appropriate safety protocols. At the same time, districts should have the flexibility to provide in-person support for those who need it most.

As pediatrician and virologist Dr. Peter Hotez recently told The Atlantic: “In communities with high transmission, it’s inevitable that COVID-19 will enter the schools. Within two weeks of opening schools, teachers will become ill… everything will shut down.” There is also growing evidence of transmissibility among children as recently indicated by the Georgia summer camp outbreak, in which 44 percent of children tested positive after one week of camp.

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Schools must continue to receive state funding to provide engaging online learning as well as in-person services like special needs services that cannot be provided remotely and supervision and tutoring of small groups of students completing online work. Students who are homeless, special needs students, and students whose parents must work outside the home will need alternatives that will allow them to continue learning and prevent them from falling further behind. For teachers and staff who return for essential in-person services, we must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay.

We need to treat teachers like the professionals they are and allow them to work from home while they are teaching online. In the spring most teachers had no experience teaching online; since then districts have provided training and best practices in online curriculum design and delivery. The most successful models prioritize real-time interaction with students, both in groups and one-on-one using online classroom breakout rooms or even simple phone calls; they also designate a master teacher who can provide model online lesson plans and serve as a continuing resource to other teachers in the school. 

Given the interruption to learning that students have experienced, it makes sense to cancel the STAAR test and instead funnel money to our school districts to allow them to make necessary investments in technology support for online learners and PPE and other safety equipment and supplies. We should also decouple school funding from daily attendance for the duration of the pandemic and allow teachers to refocus curriculum to respond to the emotional health needs of our children, many of whom have experienced trauma over the past months.

When conditions allow, we must phase reopening slowly, first focusing on younger children for whom online learning is least effective, and allow continued flexibility for online learning for all families. We will need to provide funding for increased school staffing and an overhaul of school facilities to allow for the eventual safe return of all students, including smaller class sizes, upgraded ventilation systems, and spaces for outdoor activities if those prove to be the safest venues.

By now, it is evident that COVID-19 is not leaving us any time soon. Our federal and state governments have squandered the sacrifices we made this spring and thousands are dying as a result of their missteps. Let’s not let school reopening be another misstep with tragic consequences.

Claire Barnett

Claire Barnett is an educational professional and a mother. She is the Democratic candidate for Texas House District 122.