Opinion | How to Reopen the Economy Without Killing Teachers and Parents


The debate about reopening schools seems to pit parents and their employers against teachers. But there is actually a solution that would let grown-ups go back to work, educate kids and keep everyone safe at the same time.

More than 140,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, and there are growing outbreaks in many states. No other developed nation has sent children back to school with the virus at these levels. Data about transmission in classrooms is limited. Many teachers have health risks and are understandably afraid to return. The safest course would be for kindergartners through 12th graders to continue with online courses in the fall.

But what about the millions of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds whose homes are not conducive to online learning and who rely on schools for meals? And what about parents who cannot work from home and watch over them?

The Trump administration is pressing schools to provide full-time in-person classes. But schools can’t open five days a week for all students while meeting the six-foot social distancing guidelines. Many are contemplating alternating in-class and online learning. How will such a system help parents, kids and businesses get back to a normal schedule — a pressing need at a time when 51 million Americans are unemployed?

There is a better way: Allow schools to offer only virtual classes this fall, and convert schools and other large unused spaces into Safe Centers for Online Learning. We could call them not schools, but “SCOLs.”

This is not a radical concept. Many universities are bringing some portion of their student body back to campus, but still holding classes mostly or exclusively online.

Students who can keep learning at home should do so. As a result, the centers would not be crowded and it would be possible to maintain social distancing.

Staff members would simply help students connect to online courses provided by their schools — they would not need to be teachers themselves with subject matter expertise. Recent college graduates could be recruited to work at these centers, and a college loan forgiveness program could incentivize participation. While some teachers could opt to work in a SCOL, most would be able to work remotely and spend their time developing effective online classes.

In addition to schools, we could create these centers in the many large venues that will sit vacant this fall, such as convention centers, stadiums, performing arts centers and parks. The physical requirements are modest. Students need only a desk and a laptop, many of which were already distributed when schools went online this spring. Mobile partitions can convert large venues into units that each host a small number of students wearing masks and sitting at physically-distanced desks.

The centers could provide meals for students who rely on them. Mental health and other counselors could reserve a cubicle to see students. In the case of an outbreak, students could go back to online learning from home or be redeployed to a different center.

It’s undeniable that online classes lack many of the benefits of in-person learning. But a suboptimal academic semester — or even a year — is one thing. Sickness and death is another.

Less than 1 percent of the federal relief package passed in March was dedicated to K-12 education. Congress needs to step up and pass a much larger bill. Rather than spending billions on in-person classes that would put everyone at risk and not even allow us to reopen the economy, let’s fund creative options like SCOLs, which do.

Shardha Jogee is an astronomy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the mother of a 6th grader and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

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