Viewpoints Marianne Milton: Northampton schools must offer remote learning option this fall

  • Bridge Street School parents wait outside the Northampton elementary for the dismissal of students shortly after noon on Friday, March 13. That’s the day Northampton public schools closed because of COVID-19 concerns. GAzette file photo

For the Gazette
Published: 7/26/2020 9:59:00 AM

As Springfield and New York City public schools recently announced, Northampton Public Schools must have an opt-out choice for families whose children will be endangered by attending school in person.

A full remote-learning option must be staffed.

Until people stop dying from COVID-19 disease, some families will make the difficult decision to stay at home — away from possibly infectious people.

Schools are high-vector locations. They are indoors, not necessarily well ventilated, in heavy use by hundreds (or thousands) of individuals, and mandatory settings.

While transmission remains impossible to detect and high from patients who are not yet showing any symptoms, screening by NPS then is, by definition, imperfect, perhaps dramatically.

Massachusetts still has one of the highest rates of infection per population in the country, with just over 8,500 people having died from COVID-19. Western Massachusetts has a slower rate of infection than the eastern part of the state, but our transmission is not negligible.

Asking students and staff to stay home if they’re sick, taking temperatures frequently, and questioning everyone daily about exposure to the virus (even if compliance is 100% precise) will not provide a safe environment for every child. Students and staff who are presymptomatic or asymptomatic will pass the screening, but will be infectious while circulating through the school.

Some NPS children and their family members will not survive becoming infected at the schools, even though the vast majority would make it through an infection intact. Different vulnerabilities create a minefield for some.

Similarly, masking, social distancing, and hand-washing can be effective for some students, but not for all, especially students with cognitive and emotional disabilities who cannot follow directions reliably. And it’s certainly questionable whether students, young ones in particular, even those without extraordinary limitations, will be able to comply with safeguards for more than a limited amount of time.

Concerningly, Northampton has proposed not providing masks to students at school, but instead wants to rely on families to provide freshly laundered masks every day. I can’t help but wonder about the safety of those masks once students leave their homes, even assuming that they will be sanitized and dried well, day after day.

Children and their family members have varying levels of risk based on race as one factor, as well as individualized and underlying medical conditions. You cannot place Black students and their families at higher risk than white students and families.

Each family must be the determiner of what feels safe for them. Putting white authorities from different circumstances (including local doctors) in the role of decision-making is wrong and potentially racist.

Most of the plans that NPS has proposed are solutions that ignore the high-risk stakes of some families — perhaps a tiny minority of the NPS families. But one-size policies never fit every student and their families.

It’s time for the NPS leadership to listen and respond to even the outlier families, and not just safeguard majority interests. Address their very real needs and concerns instead. Keep everyone safe.

Black lives matter, even in NPS, where they comprise only 3% of the school community.

Marianne Milton, a 20-year Northampton resident, is the parent of two Black children, one who, in May, graduated from UMass-Amherst, the other a student at JFK Middle School.

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