Opinion: Schools must coexist with COVID

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We are only just beginning to understand the extent of the learning loss that has occurred when students have been restricted to online lessons for the past two years, and the even greater damage suffered by children in minority communities. and low income.

I am tired of COVID. I know you are too. But here we are, facing a fourth wave of coronavirus, and starting to wonder if we’ll go all the way through the Greek alphabet and finally arrive at an Omega variant this year or next.

At least for those of us who are vaccinated and boosted, each new epidemic is a little less disruptive than the last. The fact that Omicron is so transmissible has left hospitals, grocery stores, and other employers looking for workers, but the impact of this new strain has been far more of a bothersome inconvenience than a dangerous threat.

When COVID first hit, and our knowledge of the virus and our protections against it were so limited, the first priority was to safeguard public health, even at immense economic and societal cost. For two years, the heart of political debate has centered on how best to balance these dueling considerations, even as the balance has gradually shifted towards reopening.

Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur

But as the country’s public schools resume classes after the holidays, students and their parents find themselves at the center of what could become a brutal political struggle over whether and how schools should operate in this latest iteration of the pandemic. We are only just beginning to understand the scale of the learning loss that has occurred when students have been restricted to online lessons for the past two years – and the even greater damage suffered by children in minority communities. and low income. We have virtually no idea of ​​the long-term psychological harm these young people have suffered as a result of their prolonged isolation and desocialization while their schools are closed.

The Republicans’ upset victory in the race for governor of Virginia last fall demonstrated parents’ dissatisfaction with prolonged school closures, and Joe Biden’s Democrats rushed to encourage teachers’ union allies to return in class. But the rapid spread of Omicron over the winter break has undermined that strategy, and it now looks like growing union resistance to reopening schools will have immense educational and political impact.

A New Jersey labor leader recently launched the well-known debate between health and the economy in particularly stark terms when he said, “I would see the whole city of Newark out of work before I let a single teacher’s aide die unnecessarily. .

Any death is a tragedy that we should go to great lengths to avoid, but such an absolute standard would require the criminalization of cars, planes, pharmaceuticals (and possibly electricity, scales, and fatty foods). In reality, we make these trade-offs every day, balancing what we believe to be some acceptable level of risk against the necessities and conveniences of our daily lives. It would not be possible to organize in-person classes according to such criteria – ever.

A more measured assessment has been offered in the Bay Area, where respected Santa Clara County Public Health Director Sara Cody released a joint statement with the county’s Office of Education urging schools to stay open.

“We have to find ways to coexist and live with COVID,” Cody said. “We have learned that in-person education is what [students] need and remote learning does not support their mental health, emotional health, and academic well-being nearly as much as in-person learning does.

To his credit, California Governor Gavin Newsom successfully lobbied the powerful California Teachers Association to pledge last month to keep the state’s public schools open. But these agreements are often tenuous, and there is already evidence of teacher work stoppages and other efforts to temporarily suspend classroom instruction. And testing shortages, rising caseloads and lack of qualified substitute teachers make it likely these trends will spread rapidly just as parents prepare to send their children back to school.

Newsom, Biden and other Democratic leaders have benefited immensely from their relationships with teachers’ unions over the years. But while protecting the health of their constituents, they will have to find a way to urge their union allies to take a more balanced approach. This balancing act won’t be easy – and it has hugely high stakes for kids and politicians
look alike.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” webinar for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall. This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

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