Our Opinion: Schools, families in dire need of solid remote learning plans

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As the coronavirus crisis stretches on, the near future of education remains disconcertingly unsure. For the sake of students, their families and teachers, education officials need to adopt a sustainable, risk-informed plan for schools — one that accepts that remote learning is going to be part of that model.

The Pittsfield School Committee voted at its Monday meeting to take off the table consideration of a fully in-person model for the return to school in the fall (Eagle, "Back to school? Not in-person, not in Pittsfield," Tuesday). The state also decided to push back by two weeks the public schools reopening date, to Sept. 15.

While each district will ultimately have to decide for themselves how best to approach schooling amid a protracted battle with the coronavirus, survey data of school families in Pittsfield underscore fears in local communities with which districts must grapple. Asked whether they agree with the statement "I would be willing to send my child to school five full days a week with all students and staff in the building spaced 3 feet apart," more than half of the respondents said no.

These reservations in light of an ongoing infectious pandemic are understandable. While the Bay State has been doing well following its initial spike earlier in the year, new cases in the state have ticked upward recently — to say nothing of the hotspots elsewhere in the country producing tens of thousands of new cases per day. Morning Consult polling data released this week shows that significantly fewer than half of U.S. adults feel comfortable with activities like dining out, shopping at a mall or going to the movies. (It's also worth noting that the discomfort is higher, on average, in blue states like Massachusetts.) Given these worries, it's no shock that many parents would have concerns about sending kids back into schools, where crowded classrooms thwart distancing and it will prove difficult to ensure young children adhere to health guidelines.

Pittsfield and other districts are also weighing "hybrid" plans, where children attend school in-person, but either in separate portions of the day or on separate days of the week in order to limit capacity and allow for more distancing. It's worth noting, though, that some forms of this plan require teachers working a longer day and thus more money. What's more, if school boards, like the one in Pittsfield, are still meeting remotely, it seems unfair for them to continue that risk mitigation strategy themselves while suggesting it be stripped away for students and teachers.

Nevertheless, we cannot afford to let education slide, especially as many children will be returning to learning from a bigger backslide than a usual summer. While the prospect of not returning to in-person schooling is a daunting one for families and educators alike, districts should bite the bullet and efficiently use what time we have to develop a plan for remote learning that mitigates this model's disadvantages. In doing so, we must acknowledge that what is an inconvenience to many is far more painful for the most vulnerable of our young population, whether they be students whose learning suffers without face-to-face instruction and socialization or kids from struggling households who find a haven in the classroom. More than ever, school districts' policies must target these children to prevent them from falling through the cracks of a straining education system.

"COVID learning is crisis learning, and it's going to be with us for a full year," Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy told State House News Service. "We don't need to just plan for what September and October look like. We need to redesign an entire year of teaching under a pandemic."

Parents are wondering how they're going to make child care work. Teachers have been forced to completely reinvent curricula. The least that we could do to ease these and manifold other anxieties is give kids, families and educators an ounce of certainty regarding what their school year looks like. But if the summer goes on without a plan solidly in place soon, then you can't prepare to implement a plan you don't have yet.

Education officials are understandably struggling in the good fight to do what is right by our communities' children. As the nation awaits a long-term solution in the form of a vaccine, families direly need a midterm plan. That entails a tough call no one wants to make that nevertheless must be made: remote learning for the 2020-21 school year.

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