Parents need a plan for back-to-school

Jul 16, 2020

In order for the economy to truly reopen, students must return to school in the fall and parents must have a clear idea of what is expected of them so they can return to work. Realistic? Maybe not, given the uncertainty — and the current rise in cases — of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, school is slated to begin in two months and a clear reopening timeline has not been forthcoming at the federal or state levels. A plan, even if it is subject to change, is better than no plan at all.

At the very least, local school administrators, parents and business leaders must engage in an open dialogue about how to move forward in the event that schools cannot reopen as normal. It is everyone’s problem to address, but parents especially deserve the time to properly plan for the education and care of their children.

The last four months have been difficult, but arguably more so for the working parent who became an educator on the fly. While still expected to work a full-time job (if they were so lucky) in a makeshift “office” at home, working parents of school-aged children also found themselves having to help their children with homework, skill building and personal development. This was done with mixed results for even the most well-equipped students and available parents.

Remote learning is inherently difficult in Maine. Access to high-speed internet is a challenge and no doubt has affected the work of students and teachers. Some school systems purchased devices and special internet plans to help families connect to online resources, but that is a Band-Aid and not a long-term solution.

Statewide, approximately 16% of students receive special education services and those requiring face-to-face and specialty one-on-one services suffered most. Younger students are easily distracted and struggle to focus and engage with remote learning. A return to the classroom would pose its own challenges. Woe to the kindergarten teacher who must convince two dozen 5-year-olds to keep their masks on. And what will such important safety measures mean for language and social development?

While getting students back to the classroom is the best thing for their continued education, the public health risk is still great and becomes greater if community transmission occurs. What may be worse than not opening schools is opening them only to quickly close them again amidst an outbreak. It’s an important consideration, but it shouldn’t prevent a timely decision.

It is unclear how much learning actually took place for students these last few months, and it may take many more months to quantify it, but what is clear is that many parents cannot successfully continue to be employees and teachers at the same time without much more support from the school system. Likewise, the school system needs the help of engaged parents if distance learning is needed into the future.

Everyone wants students and school staff to be safe. If that is not likely to be possible in a full-time school setting this fall, parents — and their employers — need to know now. The situation should be treated as the national crisis it is and planned for accordingly.  We urge the community to come together to look at options that take into account the health of residents, the economic well-being of an already suffering small business community, and the education of all students. A short- and a long-term plan is needed, and it must include all relevant stakeholders to be successful. It also must be done quickly.

Reprinted with permission from The Ellsworth American

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