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Virtual schooling is a gamble that risks the long-term health of children and families | Maria Panaritis

It's time for school districts, and our leaders, to ante up with solutions for getting kids back into classrooms.

People lined up to enter the day that Harrah's Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack reopened in late June in Chester., after a COVID-19 shutdown. Public school buildings, meanwhile, have remained closed even months later.
People lined up to enter the day that Harrah's Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack reopened in late June in Chester., after a COVID-19 shutdown. Public school buildings, meanwhile, have remained closed even months later.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

For three months now, we’ve been allowed to shoot craps indoors at a casino in suburban Philadelphia. But most children hoping to walk into an actual public elementary school classroom remained flat out of luck as the school year resumed this month.

This is a damning reality six months into the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey: Despite a half-year to prepare after lockdowns of public schools in March at the height of pandemic contagion, districts across the region are resorting to plunking kids in front of computer screens at home.

A number of private schools opened in recent weeks doing what one might have expected of more nimble public schools: using tents for extra classroom space, plastic glass shields and PPE for additional protection, and even using yellow school buses that belong to districts not open to in-class learning.

It just doesn’t add up. This can’t be the best that we can manage, even if our shared goal of safely reopening schools seems unattainable by some measures. We need to start talking about what, exactly, is attainable beyond this.

It is a mess that schools have not reopened and we must work tirelessly to acknowledge and then change this. The negative impact, long term, on our children and on the sacred institution of public education will be massive.

“If you were an alien and you landed in Delaware County and you looked around, here’s what you’d see,” Delaware County Councilman Brian Zidek, a Democrat, said during a recent meeting of the elected body as schools in his county barreled toward all-virtual openings. “You’d see bars, restaurants, casinos, and gyms open and you’d see schools closed. You’d see football practice happening right outside of a classroom that is closed, a classroom that is designed to help our children learn to read and to learn math and science. That alien would justifiably conclude that our priorities are all screwed up. The alien would conclude that gambling and football practice matter more to the citizens of Delaware County than teaching our children math.

“How did we possibly get to this point?” he continued. "It’s beyond me.”

President Donald Trump and his coronavirus-downplaying Republican soldiers hamstrung our capacity to respond to this crisis by fomenting rancor, for months, over how to contain the virus in the absence of a vaccine.

That is not a partisan statement. It is an observable fact visible to anyone with eyes and a logical mind. It is no more up for debate than PV=nRT, or that gravity equals 9.8 meters per second squared.

The president of the United States spent months lying to the American people about the severity of the virus — purposely downplaying it, by his own admission to journalist Bob Woodward, we recently learned. Trump knew as early as February that the novel coronavirus was multiple times more dangerous than the flu, we now know.

» READ MORE: Trump knew coronavirus was ‘deadly’ and worse than flu while intentionally misleading Americans, new book reports

But instead of pushing candor and national unity behind mask-wearing — key to driving down community transmission rates — he spun us like a toy. Our chaos-loving leader — that’s putting it kindly — downplayed masks. Never mind the countless other catastrophic pandemic-management failures of his administration that have hurt our nation’s ability to wrestle the coronavirus while researchers pursue a vaccine.

Even so, even with the odds stacked against us on the local level, where schools sink or swim based largely on how wealthy their taxpayers are, it is not acceptable to throw our hands in the air and say the only way to fix this is to clean out the White House. That is too great a crapshoot.

In times of great crisis, there must be solutions. These districts exist to educate children. Too many of those children, and their families, are suffering by not being able to go to school. Denying or downplaying this is downright condescending and dismissive of, principally, the least affluent among us.

» READ MORE: School schedules are all over the place. More families are opting for homeschooling.

Curiously, other than Zidek, it has been hard to find an elected official taking a loud and public stand on pushing for more. (I do not count those reckless partisans who believe opening at all costs and without safety precautions is somehow a solution. There are plenty of those dim bulbs out there.)

How is it, Zidek recently asked, that Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack in Chester is open for indoor gambling since June? Similarly, many of the economically battered restaurants and bars that survived lockdown also have reopened.

They are open because society considers it important, despite the absence of a vaccine, that businesses survive. The jobs those businesses create are life sustaining, even if their industry is about something as discretionary as recreation or leisure.

“I don’t understand why we are doing what we are doing,” Zidek elaborated in an interview. “I fear that we are going to get into a place where we have bars, restaurants, gyms, and casinos open and schools closed for the entirety of the year.”

Zidek works in the reinsurance industry, where risk modeling is core to the work. But such analyses have been lacking as governments and school boards and even epidemiologists have tabulated the value of virtual schooling.

“Do we understand the short-, medium-, and long-term implications of all of these decisions?” he said. "If the answer to that is ‘Yes,’ let me hear it. Let me feel better that we have done everything on earth to analyze this and this is the optimal solution. And I’ll get on board with it. I want the best for society, too.

“We can and should support schools in their efforts to open and to learn virtually,” Zidek added. “But that doesn’t mean that that’s where we have to stop.”