Encanto Elementary School
First day of class at Encanto Elementary School in southeast San Diego in 2017. File photo courtesy SDUSD

The warnings are dire. The options limited. The fears real. But keeping schools closed the remainder of the year may be a mistake. 

Why open up in August? The reasons are obvious and many.

First, San Diego education leaders warn of financial calamity. If even a small number of parents choose not to send their children back to traditional schools, it could trigger a funding crisis and threaten the link between neighborhoods and schools.”

Public schools, as libraries, are often the cornerstones of safety in many neighborhoods.

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Yet, some parents will seek out alternative education sites: private schools, charter schools, academies, tutors and home-schooling options—further eroding the tax base allotments for the public ones—as those funds are calculated on a daily head count in every district.

No one can blame parents for wanting to keep their children safe.

But, as the COVID-19 icon,Dr. Anthony Fauci now admits, “The idea of keeping schools closed in the fall because of safety concerns for children might be ‘a bit of a reach.’” 

The young children, he and others argue, are the least likely to get infected and are safe at school already. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that of the first 68,998 U.S. deaths from COVID-19, only 12 have been in children under age 14 — less than 0.02 percent.

Even California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pushed for August school openings—with the prospect of closing again—should the virus reappear alongside the nasty winter flu season.

What is wrong with continuing the summer schedule of remote, online and Zoom learning?  

Surely, that is preferable to half-day attendance, everyone wearing masks, no recess, and students still sitting in front of a computer—all in the name of social distancing. 

But for many students, Zoom is not the answer. 

According to educators, students really do need traditional instruction. For starters, many do not possess the requisite equipment or proficiency to master the tasks of online instruction.

According to Virginia’s state school superintendent “learning is in free-fall.”

In Boston, only half of students are showing up for online instruction on any given day; 20 percent of them have never logged on to the designated website, according to The Boston Globe. “This situation is going to be like what is often called the summer slide, but on steroids.”  

Others push for reopening schools—without social distancing—now.

How can you practice phonics with your mouth covered?” argue authorities at Stanford and Harvard. “How can you learn if it is time to return home just as you have settled into your seat? How can you develop socially and emotionally if you must remain distant from friends at recess? How can teachers instruct with masks on their faces?”

Stay home? Brave the unknown? Private universities are leading the way.  

Notre Dame and University of San Diego have already moved up their fall semester openings to August.

They admit to the difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic, but have plans and strategies that are consistent with all healthcare directives.

Those strategies, plus a strict disciplinary culture—rooted in social service to the larger community—makes compliance a given.

These universities started imagining this future months ago. They planned and worked collaboratively with faculty, administrators, students, parents and staff to find imaginative solutions and other workarounds. For example, they have split their semesters in half, thus allowing for some subject matter knowledge and testing to occur.

This, plus “a blended learning model in which students rotate shifts of online learning and in-person learning on certain days of the week to limit contact” might work.

For example, in Singapore’s school year there are 11 weeks of teaching followed by two weeks of recess over four quarters of the year in order to limit learning loss that students experience over summer break.

Might something akin to this make it easier for San Diego’s schools to open in August as well?

Perhaps start with elementary schools first as they are safest from COVID-19?  

Granted the parents, faculty, student representatives and staff all need to buy into this option, but there are advantages.

Parents need to return to work.  Monies for extended unemployment, health care costs, child care and cash payouts are drying up.  Single heads of households face even more dire consequences of children home alone.

The choice is difficult. The consequences not insignificant.

Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.