Last Friday, the Montgomery County Board of Health — a group of individuals appointed by the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, including board chair Val Arkoosh — voted to pass a mandate that all schools K-12 in Montgomery County move to virtual learning on Nov. 23 for two weeks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, especially in light of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Not everyone is happy about it. Last weekend, some parents protested at Arkoosh’s home, arguing that the decision is bad for kids and families, and they’ve filed a lawsuit against the county.
The fight over Montgomery County’s school closure is a microcosm of debates playing out across the country as families brace for the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 250,000 Americans this year. We tapped a Montgomery County teacher and a parent with opposing views to debate: Should Montgomery County schools go all-virtual amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus?
By Maureen Boland
As the first marking period closes, I recently had one-on-one virtual check-ins with my 10th- and 11th-grade students to see how online learning is going. Reviews were mixed, though one theme emerged: Many students report they’ve gotten used to virtual learning and are surprised by how well it’s going. Even better, they shared how much they’re actually learning. While they miss their friends and in-person school, many say they don’t feel safe returning and exposing their families, given the rising number of COVID cases. I agree, and we grown-ups could learn something from the thoughtful, nuanced responses of my students. While we all want children back in school, the in-person model just isn’t safe yet.
Virtual learning has been by far the greatest challenge of my 12-year teaching career. Like my students, after many hours of arduous work and investment, I’m surprised how well online learning has worked. Of course, it’s anything but ideal. I want more than anything to be back teaching in person, acting out Lady Macbeth and Blanche DuBois. But I want to do it when my students, their families, my colleagues, and I are safe.
This issue is very real to me: As a survivor of a life-threatening case of COVID last March, I spent months recovering after narrowly escaping being put on a ventilator. I likely caught the virus at school, as did my student-teacher and other teachers at my school.
As a working parent, I get the challenges of juggling a demanding job and child care. I can’t imagine the stress of virtual learning with younger children. Every day, I see how soul-crushing the isolation of virtual learning is on our high school students. The teaching and learning process during the pandemic has been excruciating and ever-changing, and we all deserve to rage about it a bit.
But the answer isn’t forcing our students, teachers, and staff into the petri dish that is the crowded public school classroom.
A recent New England Journal of Medicine piece underscored how easily young people in shared spaces spread the virus, and how essential testing and tracing are in slowing it. Our colleges and universities have shown the same. Just this week, New York City, the nation’s largest school district, moved all classes to online-only learning. Since, until recently, many schools were closed since March, we’re just beginning to see the effects of in-person learning on the virus numbers. I know from talking to other teachers and parents that there are cases spreading right now in schools in my area.
When proponents of in-person education in Montgomery County schools talk about schools being “safe” during the pandemic, they might be referring to some preliminary studies showing young children don’t readily spread the virus. But that’s not the whole picture yet, and it’s not likely the case at my school, populated by teenagers who have been shown to spread the virus much like adults but don’t show the same restraint and compliance as adults. Not to mention, schools are also populated by teachers, secretaries, custodians, and other school staff who are highly susceptible. Like me, some of my colleagues have asthma or other health conditions that make them vulnerable. Others care for ailing parents or have new babies.
The way many overcrowded, underresourced public high schools like mine are forced to function, a “safe” return just isn’t realistic until COVID numbers are much better controlled and with measures like testing.
While we might disagree on in-person school or not, this is not the time for community members to turn against each other — our children are watching, after all — but instead to work together to navigate through the pandemic, and to ensure that when we do send our students back to schools, it’s done with the safest, data-driven public health measures in place.
Maureen Boland is an English teacher at Abington Senior High School.
By Jenny Sved
While attempting to control this virus is something that should absolutely be done, Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, has offered no clear explanation as to how closing schools will help, while the negative impacts from school closures are abundantly clear.
At the time of this writing, Montgomery County has thus far closed schools, but nothing else. I can take my children bowling, out to lunch, and to a trampoline park, but they cannot go to school. Meanwhile, the City of Philadelphia has just announced many closures, including indoor dining, indoor gatherings of any kind, bars, gyms, and more, while keeping elementary schools open. Bucks County has no plans to suspend in-school instruction, either.
The virus is not transmitting widely in schools, and Montgomery County officials have provided no data that would support this decision. Board members have made comments about the numbers countywide, and cases in their respective hospitals, but no data about schools. While not all schools are able to provide the supplies, staffing, or even the square footage they need in order to safely teach children in person, the schools that are able to keep children in masks, practice social distancing, and follow guidelines set forth by the CDC should be allowed to stay open, barring any outbreaks. In fact, by removing children from the controlled, safe environment of schools, this opens up the opportunity for children to have playdates, join learning pods with other households, or move to child-care settings where social distancing and mask-wearing are unlikely to be followed.
While virtual learning for children is extremely difficult, there are legitimate concerns about the long-term effects that this will have. Parents worry about their children being held back because of the months of missed school. Mental health is a major issue as well, as so many children are isolated while at home, and children need time with their peers. And there is the mental health of parents, often working mothers, who need to make decisions about their careers as attempting to work while overseeing their children’s education is no easy feat.
There are many immediate issues as well. In May, Montgomery County reported a more than 60% decrease in the number of suspected child abuse reports, namely because children are not with mandated reporters such as teachers or therapists who typically make these calls. Many children rely on school for their meals, and, of course, there are neglect issues that come with children being home all day.
Parents of students with special needs are exceptionally affected by the mandate. “For the majority of students with special needs, virtual learning is not appropriate or effective, and these students are unable to receive many (or all) of the therapies that they are legally entitled to,” according to Wendy Lax, board-certified behavioral analyst at Connect Plus Therapy, whom I spoke to for this piece. “Due to the increased frustration that virtual learning causes, it often increases inappropriate behavior and decreases the generalization of skills.”
While David Rubin of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab stated that the COVID-19 numbers are “quickly becoming a catastrophic situation,” I fear that the bigger catastrophe is the one we are creating by forcing schools to move to virtual learning.
Jenny Sved is a wife and a mother of three children. She resides in Bala Cynwyd with her family and works for a nonprofit organization.