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Sultan: Bringing kids back to school safely is about more than the numbers
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Sultan: Bringing kids back to school safely is about more than the numbers

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First day of in-person school

Kindergartner Jya Smallwood, 5, poses for a photo for her mom on Sept. 17 —the first day Hancock Place Elementary School opened for in-person schooling for kindergarten through second graders. 

This month, most of the youngest students in the region will likely have a chance to go back to schools for in-person learning.

You don’t have to be any kind of expert to know that 6-year-olds are not getting what they need by sitting in front of a computer for hours. The same could be said for students of any age with special needs. And it is especially true for students who live in the poorest areas and whose families face the biggest hurdles to virtual learning.

These children absolutely need to be back in schools.

This transition requires careful logistical maneuvering during a pandemic. But the major obstacles to getting students back in classrooms is about more than analyzing data trends and having a mask policy in place. It comes down to how school officials will deal with rampant fear and mistrust. Schools have to convince parents and the teachers needed in the classroom that they can mitigate the risks from the coronavirus.

That’s something the state’s leadership hasn’t been able to do.

While there are plenty of parents loudly agitating for schools to reopen, there is a significant number whose children would most benefit from returning who are still unconvinced. Parents in the St. Louis Public Schools have told me they worry about their children bringing home the virus, especially if they live with older relatives or have preexisting health conditions putting them at higher risk for complications. COVID-19 has killed a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic people in America.

Their fear is understandable.

The concerns I hear from teachers are largely the same — how will schools maintain social distancing and enforce rules about masks? How will they fix poor ventilation systems? What happens at lunchtime when kids can’t wear masks? How can we keep ourselves and our families safe from exposure during cold and flu season?

A teacher recently told me she felt “expendable” in the return to school discussions. She works at a private school. Most of them have had teachers back in the classroom while the pandemic rages on in Missouri. It’s been a lesson in how much money talks. Her school has enough space and money to make sure safety protocols are strictly followed, and they haven’t had any outbreaks.

We know public schools — especially large urban districts — don’t have those kinds of resources.

These same worries carry over to those who work in large suburban districts, too.

Sandi King teaches in an elementary school in the Parkway School District. She is turning in medical records documenting her co-morbidities to avoid returning for in-person instruction later this month. When I tell her that the data show a far lower risk of transmission from younger children, low infection rates in younger age groups and studies that have shown that young children can safely return to schools with proper protocols in place, she is skeptical.

“I’m not sure I trust all that data,” she said. King said she knows someone who got infected from a child and cited the problems with testing and reporting in the state.

Other teachers fear that parents who dismiss the risks from this pandemic will send sick children or those who are asymptomatic but have been exposed to the virus to school.

This is what societal breakdown looks like — teachers who don’t trust their school districts who can’t persuade parents to trust them, either, with loads of people who don’t trust data or government or scientists or fellow parents.

This was the dangerous road our country was headed down before a pandemic set up this collision course. When large groups of people can’t agree on what is real or true or believable, the state loses its ability to perform basic functions like educating its children. If everyone in the state had chosen to wear masks and keep socially distant from one another from the beginning of the outbreak, we wouldn’t be in this prolonged nightmare.

The unfortunate reality is that there is no way schools can promise completely safe environments; returning will be a calculated risk. A superintendent inside a central office may perceive that risk differently than a teacher supervising dozens of children in a crowded cafeteria. But there is also no way we can continue to deprive the most vulnerable children of an education.

This month, schools will try to reconcile these competing needs.

Our success will be tied to how well we earn one another’s trust.

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