Over the last few weeks, I had several opportunities to meet with parents across our beautiful state to discuss getting our kids back into school buildings this fall. My team and I met parents in Sioux Falls, Spearfish, and Huron. All but one parent agreed that we need to get our students back in the classroom.
The importance of in-classroom learning has been well-documented. Teachers and parents went above and beyond when our schools closed this past March, but their tremendous efforts could not overcome the inherent challenges of distance learning. Unfortunately, students only acquired about 70% of the learning gains in reading that they would have had they been in the classroom, and that number is only 50% for math. This cannot continue.
Learning in classrooms allows our students to retain more knowledge, continue to develop social skills, and, in some cases, improve their nutrition. As the CDC tells us, “Social interaction at school among children in grades PK-12 is particularly important for the development of language, communication, social, emotional, and interpersonal skills.” All of these areas are vital for our children, and keeping kids out of classrooms could have severe negative impacts on their long-term health.
Parents understand these challenges, and they also understand that children are less likely to contract or spread COVID-19. Data from other countries where schools have already reopened indicates that our kids are at low risk compared to adults, and a JAMA Pediatrics report tells us that “children are at far greater risk of critical illness from influenza than from COVID-19.” Given these promising facts, we can rest easy knowing that our kids are safely learning in the best environment possible.
Obviously, a school can’t operate without teachers and other staff. These hard-working individuals are unlikely to catch the virus from a student. However, if they have concerns, they can practice good hygiene and social distancing. They can also wear masks if they so choose. Some teachers are in the vulnerable population, and there may be opportunities for distance teaching to students who are distance learning.
Masks are a big part of the discussion on back-to-school. Most parents that we met with agreed that it is impractical for students to properly wear a mask for the entire school day. Kids will play with their mask, touch their face, or get them dirty, all of which can actually increase the spread of the virus. During a recent press conference, I gently teased a reporter that he’d touched his mask about a half-dozen times – and he was an adult! Certainly, our children are more prone to such behavior.
Other parents are making the decision that their kids will wear masks to school, and that choice is well within their purview to make. I’d encourage parents on both sides of this discussion to recognize that their peers may have reason to make a different choice, and that we shouldn’t shame those who choose differently. We don’t always know the reason behind the choices that someone else makes, so let’s be compassionate and understanding towards each other.
Getting our kids back in the classroom may pose some challenges, but such challenges are an opportunity to adapt and improve the way we do things. Let’s embrace these challenges and do everything we can to ensure that kids across our state get back in the classroom so they can get the best education possible.