Finley: School restart should be local choice

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Local school districts should decide whether Michigan schools reopen this fall.

We’ve seen the impact of statewide shutdowns that treat regions of the state lightly affected by COVID-19 the same as those ravaged by the pandemic.

Michigan might have avoided its nation-leading unemployment rate had it adopted a regional approach to managing the virus early on, as legislative and business leaders urged.

Local school districts are best able to assess the risk in their communities, and the tolerance for that risk by their parents and teachers.

It won’t be an easy decision. If a community decides the danger of reopening schools is too great, it then has to figure out how to educate its children outside of the classrooms.

Virtual learning is far from a perfect solution, as the spring experience taught us.

The ideal solution is to get all students back in classrooms, Finley writes.

In a classroom, every child has equal resources — the same teacher, the same books, the same amount of instruction time. At home, there's no such consistency.

Some homes are steeped in technology. Others barely have an internet connection. Even in well-to-do households, the competition from work-at-home parents and children all trying to access the Wi-Fi at the same time limits its functionality.

Attendance for the virtual courses was spotty, with children left at home with grandparents or sitters — or on their own — drifting away from their computers. There wasn’t much teachers could do to round up virtual truants. And the ability of a teacher to keep less-motivated children engaged was more challenging than when they were face-to-face.

Even at its best, the online lessons fell short for most students of a full day of instruction.

Accountability was lacking for teachers as well, with some doing live sessions where they could interact with their students, and others simply posting their lessons online for students to access at their leisure.

There’s also the issue of social growth. Children need the experience of leaving their homes and interacting with other children, and engaging in non-classroom activities such as sports and academic clubs.

Obviously, the ideal solution is to get all students back in classrooms. But with current social distancing rules in place, that will be an almost impossible task. There’s not enough space or teachers to meet the requirements.

Early indications suggest that children under 10 are extremely unlikely to catch or spread the virus. Some districts across the country are using that as guidance to fully reopen their elementary schools.

But what to do for middle and high schoolers? They are the most easily distracted when outside the classroom. Some districts are opting for split weeks, with students going to class on some days and learning from home on others to ease crowding. 

There is no really good answer. The best plans and precautions could be blown away in an instant if the virus runs through the faculty, or if entire classrooms have to quarantine because one child has been exposed or infected.

School districts have had months to prepare, and plans are being put in place for both in-person and at-home learning.

Whatever the decision, it should be made at the local level. We’ve had enough broad-brush orders from Lansing, and enough of their devastating consequences.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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