Guest columnist Tim Jones: Our children deserve better than one-size-fits-all remote learning

  • Northampton High School’s track last March. gazette file photo

Published: 10/5/2020 9:37:39 AM

Northampton is a community of many educators, scientists and policy makers that has one of the safest COVID-19 transmission records in the commonwealth. Our community has opened up effectively indoors in so many areas: stores, medical and dental offices, restaurants and business offices.

But we’re ironically leaving one of our most important community resources behind in a cloud of fear and neglect — our schools — to the detriment of the vast majority of students.

In fact, our own school reopening plan states: “The American Academy of Pediatrics and Northampton Area Pediatrics who serve so many of our students have been absolutely clear that resuming full-time in person instruction would be the best thing for students, as long as allowances are made for those families who choose not to send their children back to school at this time.”

With our community’s high personal protective equipment compliance, low COVID-19 infection rate, and value for education and science, we would seem to be an ideal community to open up schools. But we’re not doing that. Instead, we’ve gotten bogged down searching for the perfect solution to getting our schools back up and running while keeping vulnerable community members safe.

A perfect solution to opening the schools with no COVID-19 risk does not exist, nor will it for a long time to come. We face non-COVID-19 risks every day, and we have grown to accept and manage those risks.

We can do that with COVID-19 and the schools; we have to do that because there is no magic bullet in the short- or long-term. Reliable research indicates that widespread implementation of a vaccine will not occur until late spring/early summer 2021, at the earliest. Bill Gates thinks it may not come until 2022. And even then, there are no guarantees.

Our community, particularly our children, deserve better than the current one-size-fits-all remote learning. We owe our children an approach based not on fear, uncertainty and doubt, but on rational protocols informed by current scientific data on COVID-19.

Science shows that masks, distance, and infusion of fresh air are effective, perhaps more so than any vaccine currently in development (as one government scientist recently testified).

There are ways to ensure high compliance rates within the schools, and companies are now making effective masks that are comfortable to wear.

There are very low-cost, easily administered (using saliva at $10/test) COVID-19 tests available. Some may not have the accuracy of others, but they are just one additional tool for the quiver that the schools could investigate and employ.

Several excellent school districts throughout Massachusetts have adopted some sort of hybrid approach to reopening now or in the near future. Some are generally in more urban communities with higher COVID-19 infection rates. That is in stark contrast to the extremely low rate of infection in our community.

These hybrid approaches generally provide students and caregivers with a choice; if they’re not comfortable with in-person learning, they may opt out for remote learning. Around the world, schools have been reopening for several months and employing nuanced, science-based approaches recommended in the “Framework for Reopening Schools” (June 2020), developed and published by the United Nations and several international aid organizations.

And we can learn from their experiences based upon the recently published “Emerging lessons from Country Experiences in Managing the Process of Reopening Schools.”

A recent article in Science (Sept. 4, 2020) titled “Reopening schools during COVID-19,” explained that communities with low risk of COVID-19 transmission should be opening schools because the schools’ risk is correlated with the community risk. Our community easily falls within that low-risk category.

The article then goes on to provide the following findings from the authors’ research: “Transmission (of COVID-19) within schools has been rare when rigorous measures have been implemented to reduce the risk of person-to-person spread. Larger school outbreaks are associated with increased community transmission, insufficient physical distancing, poor ventilation, and lack of masking. Schools that implemented transmission mitigation measures (including in European countries) seem not to have substantially contributed to increased circulation of the virus among local communities.”

The article then goes on to state: “Countries providing in-person schooling with basic mitigation measures (i.e., distancing, face masks worn in hallways but not classrooms, hand hygiene, ventilation, and staying home with minimal symptoms) typically have close to zero community transmission.”

Northampton children deserve a better approach to schooling during the pandemic. There is an abundance of information and research already available to the School Committee from schools in the commonwealth and around the world regarding how to safely open based upon their experiences. Let’s promptly use that information and get our kids back into school.

Please join me in asking that the School Committee to revisit and vote on the superintendent’s hybrid proposal at its Oct. 8 meeting with the goal of finding a way to provide effective and safe in-person learning to those families who want it by Nov. 4, at the latest.

Timothy Jones lives in Northampton.

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