In many American cities, public school buildings have been closed for nearly a year. Virtual learning is the only choice for students who attend these schools.
The impact these closures have had on children is grim. Academically, public school students—especially special needs and minority children—are losing ground. Emotionally, children are suffering. Socially, kids are feeling lonely and isolated. Despite this, leaders in the education sector continue to push to keep schools closed.
They defend these decisions with the oft-heard bromide that they are “following the science.” That might have been true in March 2020, when the scientific information was filled with uncertainties and questions. Indeed, that early science clearly justified school closures. Yet, to use that tired phrase today shows public school leaders are ignoring the most important word in that phrase: “the.” Instead, we have devolved into separate camps that choose to follow “my science”—or the version that best suits their personal or ideological needs.
Following “the” science means assessing the most accurate, objective, and unbiased scientific evidence developed by qualified and independent researchers and applying those findings to our daily lives. That does not mean eliminating every risk—that is a fool’s errand. It does mean managing the risks we all face in a way that provides the greatest benefit to the most people while limiting potential damage.
Since late summer, “the science” has been urging school leaders to open—in some fashion. Most private schools followed that guidance by opening in September, some in full, some choosing a hybrid style of part time online, part time in-person instruction. There has been little COVID-19 spread in those schools. Would public school officials rather all of us just ignore the science that shows children do not appear to be super spreaders and that schools do not appear to be vectors of the disease?
It looks that way.
There’s another serious question public school officials who constantly parrot the “follow the science” phrase should answer: How did following the science lead to the decision to abandon even the most vulnerable children, which studies shows are at the highest risk of educational loss due to virtual-only learning?
Consider the situation in one Virginia public school system. The Alexandria City public school system (ACPS) operates an education program for a small number of elementary students (approximately 100-150) who suffer from profound educational challenges. These include children with Downs Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and students who have vision and hearing loss or are medically fragile.
Under normal circumstances, these children are provided with separate classrooms and receive in-person attention from special education teachers, highly trained paraprofessionals, occupational and speech therapists, and other educational specialists. Yet, all of this disappeared after ACPS closed its doors. Instead of individualized attention and in-person instruction, this small number of K-5 special needs students were told—along with every other student—that they’d just have to adapt to the virtual-only learning format—an impossibility given their learning disabilities.
Federal law requires public schools to accommodate these students. Yet the necessary accommodations that help these students learn and that normally take place in–person are not being provided. Even when special needs parents publicly shared their children’s struggles with online learning, ACPS was unmoved, repeating the line that they were following “the CDC’s guidance,” long after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began urging schools to offer in-person learning in some capacity.
Parents are not unsympathetic to teachers and school administrators worried about the transmission of a highly contagious disease. Yet parents also expect a modicum of compassion for special needs children who cannot learn in a virtual setting. The intransigence of public school officials at a time when flexibility, creativity, and innovation are most needed is a legacy that will be hard to live down.