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Commentary: Wear your masks, because my child needs to go to school this fall

Commentary: Wear your masks, because my child needs to go to school this fall

Only $5 for 5 months
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is interviewed while visiting the Hot and Cool Cafe in Los Angeles on June 3, 2020. California will allow film and television shoots to resume as soon as June 12, Newsom's office said on Friday, June 5, 2020.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is interviewed while visiting the Hot and Cool Cafe in Los Angeles on June 3, 2020. California will allow film and television shoots to resume as soon as June 12, Newsom's office said on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Wear your damn masks, because my child needs to go to school this fall.

It's been approximately 3,839 days of quarantine, and I'm in a pretty good routine. I broke down and bought a proper desk; unlike the table I had been using, it doesn't have a support beam underneath that barks my shin a dozen times a day. I set an alarm every morning. I figured out how to schedule calls and interviews around online school, when I can write, and how to keep myself on task. I'm getting used to it.

You know who's not? My kid.

It's been a rough four months for our children. They left school March 12, unsure if or when they'd be back, if or when they'd see their friends or beloved teachers again.

We are lucky - I can work from home, and my son is old enough to not need constant tending. We made it through the first few weeks with paper worksheets and sheer adrenaline, adjusting to our new, constricted lives.

But I know he's not getting used to it, because he told me so. The transition from his cheerily boisterous school, filled with learning and friends, to a smaller life spent largely within our homedoesn't suit.

Online classes began around spring break, a remarkable effort put together by our school administrators and teachers with little notice and fewer resources.

This is what I learned this spring: Online learning is not a thing.

Our school made no pretense that online learning was a substitute for in-person instruction. Teachers were clear that online classes were intended to reinforce what the kids had already learned, not communicate new material. I watched my child struggle to pay attention through the daily, hour-long Zoom call, listening to his teacher patiently working to draw students into the day's lesson, even when all that was visible on her own screen was the back of an empty sofa or sliver of light fixture and ceiling.

I cannot imagine how a teacher could effectively use an online learning platform to communicate new information to young children, particularly to an incoming fall class that he or she had not spent time with in-person.

But we made it, signing off the school year's final Zoom call without any sense of completion, and without, really, a summer ahead: no camps, no playdates, no trips to friends' pools. Just hours indoors while my husband and I work, without even online school to break the hours of monotony.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says in-person school is vital for a child's emotional and mental health. They're right. Teachers will tell you that in-person school is vital for a child's educational and intellectual growth. They're also right. Anyone can tell you that the children who experience the worst educational outcomes will be most harmed by this online, at-home limbo in which we've spent most of this year. Our state's most vulnerable children may not have the technology required to attend online classes, and their parents' jobs may require their physical presence, whether childcare is available or not. That's the other part of online school that's so significant.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told us that this is possible.

Michigan's pandemic management has succeeded in containing the spread of the virus. The academic website COVID Act Now says the virus is spreading here in a slow, controlled fashion. And though we've seen a spike in new diagnoses in some parts of the state, the total number of cases is still shrinking.

Whitmer is requiring local school districts to develop three plans for in-person learning, with stringent, moderate and minimal safety protocols, and a fully online plan. In each of the in-person plans, educators and staff are required to wear masks at all times, as are all students during transportation and in common areas. In classrooms, students in grades 6-12 must wear masks; younger children won't be required to.

Schools won't open just because the governor says they can. Ultimately, these decisions will be made at the district level, and many superintendents are anticipating the need for a mix of online and in-person instruction, in no small part because a small percentage of parents say they simply won't send their kids back to school this fall. Some surveys suggest that teachers, likewise, are hesitant to return. Federal funds will help districts pay for the particular needs of COVID-19, but I can't imagine it will be enough.

But Whitmer made it clear Tuesday that in-person school this fall is a real, viable option.

And equally as clear that this option is only viable if Michigan's COVID-19 numbers continue to fall.

So wear your masks. Wash your hands. Avoid crowded places.

Because my kid needs to go to school this fall. And so does yours.



Nancy Kaffer is a Free Press columnist.

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