To the editor:
I am writing in response to Dr. Sklaver’s opinion piece in your newspaper (”Should schools reopen,” Aug. 10). My children, while not patients of Dr. Sklaver, are patients at Garden City Pediatrics. We have the utmost respect and love for our pediatrician and always seriously consider the advice we receive from our caring doctors there. However, I am gravely concerned with the oversimplification of Dr. Sklaver’s recommendation for schools to open right now. Our country is facing the most complex of problems and the answers regarding school are not easy ones. We all seem to be seeking straightforward, easy answers and that is very worrisome, especially coming from our nation’s pediatricians. The recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics are misguiding parents to make decisions where we have little data or experience of a complete understanding of health outcomes for many adults and children i.e benefits of in-class learning versus effects of viral transmission and long term consequences of infection. As of today, according to the AAP website, “97,078 new child cases reported from July 16-30 (241,904 to 338,982), a 40% increase in child cases.” I believe this is more current information that should be significant as schools and parents begin to make decisions regarding the safety and health of their families.
I am an educator with 18 years of experience. I love school. Schools are crucial to community, well-being and learning. Schools provide our towns and cities with feelings of safety, inspiration and hope. Our classrooms are places where children are encouraged to learn complex reasoning, grapple with math problems, and learn to read. However, without the hard work of our teachers, the facilitation of a child’s development would not be possible. These are points we can all agree upon. However, if we ask our teachers (both public and private school teachers) to enter school buildings in a few weeks without the necessary protective equipment, updated building ventilation systems, and realistic hygienic and social distancing measures put into place, we are willing them to contract an illness that could at best debilitate them and at worst could kill them.
I understand the grief our society collectively feels as we mourn the loss of the traditional school day. Parents are desperate for normalcy, routine, and the first day of school picture on the front stoop. However, the reality we face this September is that we live in a country that has not implemented the necessary steps -- test, track, trace, treat -- and therefore has not even tried to manage the pandemic. Massachusetts continues to see numbers of cases creep up as many of us are beginning to tire of social distancing and mask wearing. So I ask, what is the rush? Why are we so willing to sacrifice the health and safety of some of the most valuable members of our society - our children and our teachers? The death of one teacher or student is gut wrenching for a school community, the deaths of dozens would be dystopian.
While I understand that online learning is challenging for families, I do believe that the fall will look much different. In March our schools moved swiftly into crisis management. Teachers had to upend their practice and move entire curriculum online while many also balanced their own children at home. Now that our schools know better, I have the utmost faith that they will do better. Will our children learn like this forever? Of course not. But we are living in the midst of a pandemic and sacrifices must be made. Especially, as Dr. Sklaver noted, when our leaders have chosen to prioritize the opening of gyms, bars and hair salons over schools. Our federal government bailed out the commercial sector of America without blinking an eye, while leaving America’s schoolchildren with reduced funding and no clear and guided safe re-entry plan.
These are not easy times, but instead of resigning ourselves to the acceptance of outbreaks in our schools, maybe we should be thinking more courageously. I call on schools to phase in our neediest students first, those that depend on school for nourishment, children of essential workers, and those who are unable to learn without specialized supports. Teachers that feel they can provide in-person instruction can volunteer to teach this population of children while we promise to allocate sick time for those educators directing the in-person learning. Everyone else should continue to learn remotely until we have sufficient control over the spread of the disease. Our business leaders must support workers as they balance the facilitation of remote learning for their children with their work.
When I was 11, my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Coulter, died unexpectedly right in the middle of our school year. It was devastating for my elementary school, and for many of my classmates it was the first time we had experienced the loss of someone we loved and cared about. I can vividly remember the day Mrs. Coulter’s husband came to school to tell us that she was gone and she wouldn’t be back at school. The loss of my teacher has stuck with me for my entire life. I don’t remember much about what content I learned in the sixth grade, but I do remember the fire-engine-red suits Mrs. Coulter wore to school and her daily encouragement to her students, “good, better, best, never let it rest until your good is better and your better is best.” She represented the very spirit of every American educator and she is very much a part of the reason I chose to become an English teacher. The loss of Mrs. Coulter was a defining one for me and not something I would wish on any child.
It has taken me months to find the right words to speak out in defense of our schools, our teachers and our children. When I read Dr. Sklaver’s letter, as a mother, educator and citizen, I knew it was time to speak up. By asking teachers and administrators to walk into often poorly ventilated buildings, with hundreds of students (the youngest unmasked according to Massachusetts guidelines), and limited access to the necessary protective equipment, we are telling them that their lives don’t matter. We have to ask ourselves why we are so willing to sacrifice the lives of these most valuable members of society. My greatest fear is that in six months we will be reconciling the deaths of thousands of our nation’s teachers, while many thousands more still recover from the complications of this novel virus. I wonder if Dr. Sklaver and the AAP might then be thinking differently about how the role of school, in the middle of a pandemic, plays in the mental well-being of his patients.
Sarah Redman Stone