Voices: Re-opening public schools: The things we do for our kids

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COVID-19 is deadly, the pandemic is real, and more than 120,000 people in this country have died from the virus in just a few months.

It is tragically sad and a complete failure of national leadership that our country was not prepared better to deal with this, especially considering we still seem to lack a national testing strategy. Lives could have been saved with more effective leadership. The economic disruption could have been better handled with better leadership from the start.

I understand the dangers of COVID-19 are real and the pandemic is not over yet.

But here’s the unavoidable dilemma: If the disruption in the typical K-12 school day persists into the fall, the inequality and lack of educational opportunities for many of our children in our school system will be exacerbated beyond repair.

The necessity of re-opening public schools

I never would claim opening K-12 schools will be safe in the fall. I don’t know how safe it will be. I don’t know how to measure “safe” either. But opening K-12 schools this fall is necessary.

And not just a partial opening, where half the kids come one day and half the next, not a part-online, part-in-the-classroom experience, not a small group of only 10 students per class, nor class only with no extracurricular activities. It is necessary to open K-12 fully in the fall. We can’t afford to let kids fall behind more than they already have.

I fully supported the call in March to close school buildings. Our district leaders, campus administrations and teachers have handled this pandemic exceptionally well. It is not their fault there is no national strategy to deal with this pandemic. But, K-12 online learning is limited and not adequate or realistic. The long-term damage to children if we don’t re-open fully in the fall will be severe.

The cost of unequal access to education

Consider Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015), which researches the impact of educational opportunities for the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Discussing the importance of face-to-face education, Putnam writes: “Among elementary-age children, for example, test score gaps expand faster during the summer, while kids are out of school, and then stabilize when kids go back to school in the fall.”

These past few months of “home schooling” and “distance learning” further widened the gap in our society. This hiatus cannot continue. Given what we know about COVID-19 and the effect on children, it would be an injustice to millions of children not to have face-to-face school with programming in the fall, which includes extracurricular activities.

Again, from Putnam: “Consistent involvement in extracurricular activities is strongly associated with a variety of positive outcomes during the school years and beyond—even after controlling for family background, cognitive skills and many other potentially confounding variables. These positive outcomes include higher grade-point averages, lower dropout rates, lower truancy, better work habits, higher educational aspirations, lower delinquency rates, greater self-esteem, more psychological resilience, less risky behavior, more civic engagement (like voting and volunteering), and higher future wages and occupational attainment.”

A school community is imperative, not only to education, but also to personal growth as well, as it provides the soft skills necessary for a successful future.

Again, from Putnam: “Many researchers believe that soft skills and extracurricular participation are as important as hard skills and formal schooling in explaining educational attainment and earnings ten years later, even controlling for family background. That’s because employers increasingly value noncognitive traits, such as work habits and ability to work with others. These noncognitive traits may even be more important for students from more disadvantaged family backgrounds.”

While privatization of extracurricular activities benefits wealthier families, public school activities help level the opportunity gap. Public schools cannot open just for basic education skills, but need to offer the full spectrum of what public schools offer.

We believe in equality of opportunity; however, as Putnam’s research indicates, the opportunity gap is only widening with schools closed: “Equality of opportunity is not a simple guide to public action. However, we don’t need to resolve those philosophical conundrums to recognize that the growing opportunity gap between rich kids and poor kids in America today is morally unacceptable. We don’t have to believe in perfect equality of opportunity to agree that our religious ideals and our basic moral code demand more equality of opportunity than we have now.”

Texas Baptists’ concern for education

While Putnam’s work is not focused on religion, his conclusions certainly point to the moral imperative the church should support as well. As Texas Baptists, we proclaim education is “a key ingredient in proper human development, which makes possible a wide array of benefits for the individual and society.”

In Therefore, the Christian Life Commission proclaims: “The public schools are not an instrument of social salvation, but they will—if given the resources to do so—make an enormously positive difference for the common good. Ninety percent of our children still attend public schools, and our failure to attend to their needs will negatively impact one hundred percent of our society.”

Remaining closed or just partially open will lead to further inequality—an inequality that impacts the kingdom of God and that we as Christians should oppose.

A recent study referenced in the New York Times concluded that students, particularly those at the lower end economically, are losing up to a year of academics as a result of the shutdown. This is unacceptable.

What we must do for our kids

For the future of all of our children, we must re-open our public schools fully in the fall. We can require masks, frequent hand-washing or any number of things. We’ll impress the importance of those standards upon our kids. Parents who don’t like masks should swallow their pride and support their usage. Our kids are resilient and will meet expectations.

We must be ready to open and stay open, even when students test positive for COVID-19. No other viable alternative for the future of our kids in our communities is optional.

As citizens concerned about the growing inequality in society, we should contact our school boards and the Texas Education Agency to let them know what is at stake—economic justice and access to equal educational opportunities that will impact every child for the rest of their lives. This is a justice issue. We’ve got to make it work.

For some, I understand this would mean major changes, including opting to home school children with high-risk health conditions or remaining away from family members who are high-risk. It will impact some public school employees who feel it would not be safe for them to be back in the classroom, leading them to an unexpected job change.

This is not an easy decision. However, it is the only decision that gives a generation of children the equal opportunity to achieve what they are capable of achieving. More time lost will be devastating for a lifetime for many children in our state. More time lost would be an injustice.

Jack Goodyear is a professor of political science, a member of First Baptist Church in Arlington and a product and supporter of K-12 public schools in Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.


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