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The Recorder - My Turn: Why schools are opening remotely: Safety

Many families are understandably frustrated that our local schools are choosing to begin the school year remotely, with no students in the building. Their children have been isolated for months and caregivers, especially those who must work, have had to balance child care and supervising their children’s remote education with their own work and other responsibilities.

Many educators are also caregivers who are also caught in the middle of conflicting demands for their time and attention and would like nothing better than to begin the school year in buildings, with their students. The children, too, miss their friends and teachers. So if everyone would like for schools to open, what’s the problem?

The COVID-19 virus spreads mainly from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even just talks. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Spread is far more likely when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) and when they are spending long periods of time together. And people are often contagious before they know they are sick.

This is why schools are particularly reluctant to open in-person. Students and teachers would be inside a building for six hours each day, in close contact. There is simply no way to guarantee safety under these conditions. Our schools simply do not have the building upgrades nor the personnel budgets to create safe conditions. Consider:

■Eleven or 12 at most can fit into a typical classroom while maintaining six-foot distance between students. This means roughly twice as many classroom spaces and teachers will be needed. Where will they come from?

■Spacing requirements for busses mean that only one-third of the usual load of students can be on a bus. School districts do not have three times the number of busses they had last year, with drivers for them as well.

■Significant upgrades to many buildings are needed especially in terms of ventilation systems to ensure safety. Since the virus is primarily spread through the air, how air circulates, how it is ventilated to the outside, and how hundreds of students sitting for hours within a closed space can stay safe is a major challenge.

■The changes needed to make schools safe are costly in terms of time, materials and personnel. There is not enough money available to make those changes.

■It is important to remember that the schools are not at fault for this crisis and how it is differentially impacting families.

■Schools did not cause the virus. There are more cases and deaths in the U.S. than anywhere else, and those numbers continue to rise, but public health experts say it would be even worse had our schools not closed last spring to contain the spread.

■The schools did not choose to underfund themselves for the past several years, nor for keeping “level funding” for the current year in the face of the extraordinary need for more spending to meet this crisis. Schools are at the mercy of their school committees, local and national political forces, and economic realities.

■Schools do not set the protocols for opening public spaces safely. When the state says no more than 10 people in an indoor space, or mandates a six-foot distance between people, schools are morally and legally obligated to follow those guidelines. When the CDC says it’s not safe to spend 15 minutes in a store that has more than one person every 200 square feet, how can it be safe to spend five or six hours with hundreds of others in a building at six times that density?

■Schools did not create the long-time crushing inequality and racism that have caused greater devastation from COVID-19 among communities of color and among the poorest communities. The virus has simply made it more visible and harder to ignore.

■Our schools depend upon tax dollars. But schools are not responsible for tax laws and policies that allow the very rich to hide their money overseas or in other shelters such that they pay little or no taxes.

It is crucial that schools and our community work together to keep our children and educators safe while providing the best education possible under the circumstances. And to work to make change in our tax structure and economy so that our schools get the funding they need to truly serve our children.

Doug Selwyn is a Greenfield resident and a member of the FCCPR (Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution) education task force.

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