Sen. Paul Pinsky: Time for an Honest Conversation on School Reopening Plans

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon, with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) behind her. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

President Trump and Betsy DeVos, his sycophantic secretary of Education, seem to have only one thing on their minds these days: winning the November election. And the duo think they can and will win if schools reopen this fall. At election time, they’re betting, grateful parents will reward them.

But that bet rests on a false assumption. The Trump crew is assuming that parents want their kids out of the house so much they’ll be willing, come September, to put their children’s health at risk.

Parents have sent no such signal. In fact, more than a few parents are proclaiming they won’t let their kids resume classes on school site until we have a vaccine — or the coronavirus is thoroughly contained.

All these cross-pressures have educators in a classic bind. Open too early and we risk the health of not just kids and school staff, but entire communities. Open too late and kids from families in need may never catch up.

We need to reframe the debate. We shouldn’t be arguing over whether we reopen or not. Only one question matters: How do we reopen and under what circumstances?

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s)

Now, clearly, we shouldn’t be in this predicament at all. If we had some real presidential leadership, if we had a president with a moral compass, the COVID-19 epidemic might already be over — or at least contained. We have not yet come even close to that point. Our United States still has no effective national policy on the coronavirus, no consistent set of standards and recommended behaviors.

How can schools reopen in this atmosphere? How can we expect teachers to enforce mask-wearing with their students when the president and many governors have been unwilling to mandate masks in bars and other problematic settings? With front-line workers in many hospitals not getting regularly tested, how can we have any confidence that we can adequately test school staff?

Those who sit in the “no way, no how” no-return-to-school camp have equally difficult questions to consider. No reputable scientists or medical professionals can tell us exactly when — of even if — we’ll have the coronavirus fully contained. No one knows when a safe, effective vaccine will appear, or when that vaccine will be available in enough quantity to cover our entire population.

In other words, we can’t turn pandemics on and off like a light switch. The virus solutions we seek will only come through careful science, through trial and inevitable error. All that may take years. We cannot expect to fill these years with only distance learning. Expecting Zoom to keep our students engaged and learning for long periods of time would be a recipe for social, emotional, and educational disaster. In our increasingly segregated schools, African-American and other students of color would bear the disproportionate negative burden.

Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Students need direct instruction and real-time feedback. Teachers need to see children’s faces, the smiles that come when they comprehend, the frowns that signal confusion. Children need to experience the socialization success that comes with interacting with other students. They need to learn from each other and participate in group work. Learning in isolation will always be dehumanizing.

So we need to bring students back, but only as quickly as safety allows.

The steps to reopening schools I’m proposing here will only succeed with responsible state leadership. Our state’s 24 educational jurisdictions need to have the state set the tone and provide the necessary resources. Unfortunately, our state’s top leadership has, like the White House, chosen to abdicate virtually all responsibility, leaving most everything to the locals.

This abdication might make political sense. By abdicating, after all, our governor and state superintendent of schools are shielding themselves from any potential fallout. But we need and deserve better.

State school superintendent Karen Salmon should be setting the quantifiable virus metrics for the state that can enable us to begin a systematic return to our classrooms. With these metrics in place on aspects of the pandemic like new cases per 100,000, positive test result rolling averages and transmission rates, local systems could proceed to begin reopening up.

Those counties lagging, by the metrics, would begin the reopening process later. This would ensure that there would be no finger-pointing, claiming one county was less safe than another.

The governor and state superintendent should also be setting statewide, medical-based protocols for handling situations when students or staff members come down with COVID-19. How many cases in a classroom would necessitate the closing of that room and sending students home? How many to close a building? We need state standards, coupled with the resources needed to meet those standards, on everything from testing and contact tracing to isolation safeguards.

Finally, Governor Hogan must guarantee that no localities go without essential coronavirus protective materials — the masks, the sanitizing agents, shields, all the basics — and make sure as well that all our school systems build in reassessment periods to decide whether to pull back, keep moving, or open faster.

Bringing students back en masse — as the president demands — will only exacerbate the current virus spike and put both school staff and the broader population at risk. Yes, school-age kids may not get deathly sick from the coronavirus, but they can still spread the virus to their more vulnerable family members and neighbors.

Actual data can help us here. Not one child in Maryland under the age of 10 has died from the virus. Most medical studies, including the largest to date from South Korea, show that children under 10 spread the COVID-19 disease at significantly lower levels than young people between 10 and 19.

Given these numbers, why not start preparing for school reopenings in grades up to 4 or 5? Why not split this elementary-age population in half, as one Maryland county has suggested, and have half of the students attend Monday and Tuesday and half Thursday and Friday, leaving Wednesday for crossover cleaning? Why not couple this schedule with more frequent testing for those staff members who come into contact with the attending students?

Would this approach be perfect? Of course not. We would need clear post-infection protocols and requisite contact tracing in place before any reopenings. To make our testing more efficient, we should also be using commingled pooled testing, probes that would tell us if anyone within a classroom has the virus, information that can then trigger immediate individual tests within that classroom.

What sort of timeline should we be considering? We have the time and opportunity right now to develop more detailed plans for reopening schools — by the second semester, if not sooner — for students up to age 10. And this reopening could then serve as a real world guide to proceeding with secondary students.

Let’s be clear about what this proposal entails. I’m not suggesting that we treat young students as those proverbial “canaries in a coal mine.” I’m not proposing to sacrifice anyone. We would instead be recognizing that younger students rate as less prone to serious illness and virus spread. These younger students have no firm, fully developed education foundation. They need one. They should be the first to benefit from any return to the classroom.

Moving down this path would take the cooperation of all school stakeholders. Surveys, with the support of staff unions, could tell us how many educators would be willing to return with clear protocols in place. Administrators, parents, and teachers and other school staff would all then need to be at the table when decisions get made. And we can’t afford to ignore the questions and concerns students may have either.

We need, in short, a more nuanced public conversation over how to reopen our schools. Yes, any return to the classroom will be risky. But an honest, open conversation over how to do that return shouldn’t be.

— PAUL G. PINSKY

The writer, a former teacher, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland Senate, where he chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

On Thursday, Sen. Pinsky and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) will be hosting a roundtable with school superintendents concerning the path to reopening for in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 academic year, and what metrics should guide decision-making. Joining the senators will be Baltimore City Schools Superintendent Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jack R. Smith, and Talbot County Schools Superintendent Dr. Kelly L. Griffith.

The roundtable can be seen live at 10 a.m. here.