My goal was to figure out whom to call to make sure that working parents are not crushed again this fall.
Instead of a satisfying answer I got a growing sense of terror.
Those of us with children in public schools were like deer thrown into highway traffic in March when coronavirus public school closures left us sequestered for months at home with kids and no school or real-time teaching. With the fall school year approaching, what are districts doing to avoid a repeat of this horror show that threatens to force parents out of the workforce and damage children in ways too great to grasp?
School districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania are scrambling to figure out how to safely reopen this fall. They are doing this on the shifting sands of public health guidance and coronavirus contagion rates that are changing every day. And with no wartime mobilization at any level of government to help them out.
Yet again, our nation fails us in our time of greatest need — only this time, the shortcomings of a national pandemic response is taking direct aim at working parents, at our youngest children, at our jobs, and those who hold up our most vital public institution: taxpayer-funded schools and all who work there.
Where is the leadership? Where? Where? Where?
A years-long effort to weaken public schools by starving them of state aid left many districts, including suburban ones, underfunded heading into the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Now they’re left to design life-and-death back-to-school protocols on the fly and with no emergency funding or other muscle from Washington or Harrisburg.
How can they keep teachers safe? Kids safe? Arrange desks far enough apart in overcrowded classrooms? Get kids bused if buses must be half empty? Make sure kids don’t fall behind if schools again close? Keep parents from losing their jobs if they again have to become makeshift teachers at home?
Not even the purchase of personal protective equipment, just one of the many complex components to safe reopenings, is going all that smoothly.
Getting PPE in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley, and Allegheny County has been challenging, said John Callahan, chief advocacy officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association when we spoke Monday.
“Getting ahold of hand sanitizer right now is not easy,” Callahan said. “… We’re finding [order deliveries are] two to three months postponed.”
One district, he said, “actually got ahold of hand sanitizer, but the equipment to actually dispense it is back-ordered. You’re in competition with everyone else who wants it right now. That’s a challenge that people are facing.”
This is absurd. And an unconscionable failure of our government.
Only the federal government working arm-in-arm with our governors can muster the resources needed to get schools to where they need to be this fall given the absence of a vaccine for the coronavirus that has killed 130,000 Americans.
And yet, where is President Trump on this?
Nowhere. He’s blowing hot air about schools opening up, but offering them no help. It’s his brand.
Districts are wading through fraught terrain themselves, and working parents will be left holding the wreckage yet again.
Some districts are contemplating emptying out high schools to expand social-distancing capacity for children in lower grades who cannot go without in-person instruction.
“There has been substantial talk about that — different school districts saying hey, do we just bring in our K-through-6 and have them in the building while we have the high school online?” Callahan said.
Emergency cash would help but has been scarce.
Proposed federal pandemic school-aid funding (the HEROES Act) is stalled in the Republican Senate.
Now’s a good time to call your congressional representative and, if you live in Pennsylvania, Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, and demand that they make that cash flow.
Failure to keep children in class — or to guarantee high-quality remote instruction if they are sent home as some private schools managed this past spring — would be calamitous.
We cannot ask working parents to take this on yet again. It would push them out of livelihoods while harming children with inadequate learning. No wonder even the American Academy of Pediatrics urges a reopening of brick-and-mortar schools.
One man conveyed the struggle when I called this week: Upper Merion School District Superintendent John Toleno. He told me he wants nothing more than to open, and is hoping to do so five days a week without staggered student schedules. But rising infection rates elsewhere in the country have him worried.
“We don’t go back to school if there’s still snow on the roads and the roads are dangerous and icy,” Toleno said. “We can’t transport the kids safely. But in this case, in my opinion, the snow’s not off the road. We’re trying to figure out how to get kids back to school and I’m just concerned about the inherent risk. If I didn’t say that, I’d be lying.”
His five-days-a-week-for-all-students plan speaks to concerns about the fact that working parents of younger children, in particular, would not be able to juggle work and the logistics of child care otherwise.
“Parents have to get back to work,” Toleno said. “Parents have to get back to some kind of normalcy.”
To make space for safe social distancing the district is removing reading carpets from elementary-school classrooms.
“We’re taking peripheral furniture — file cabinets — out of the classroom,” Toleno continued. “And where we can’t do that, we’re moving those classes in other places. We’re going to have to split kids up if we have to.”
But here is where things are tough: If schools again close due to rising COVID-19 rates locally, parents would need to “act as an educational coach for the child.”
No. No. No.
A pandemic and its damage to workers and children is not a problem you can solve district by district. It requires the will and resources of a great nation.
And yet, here we are. Yet again — on our own — against a herculean foe.