The prospects of returning to school during the pandemic

With the first quarter at an end and grades rolling out, many have weighed in on the matter of returning to school. Several factors have contributed to this discussion, such as recent vaccine developments, past attempts to reopen other schools, and the spread of Covid-19 in Alameda County. The reason why many people are arguing over whether or not to return to school is the struggles that the students and teachers are facing during online learning. Teachers are experiencing difficulties when trying to connect with students and teach the information. On the other hand, students are struggling to learn and are being distracted by their environments. In fact, recently parents have been pushing for Livermore schools to reopen despite the current state of Alameda County. Valley Joint Unified School District ruled that there must be a 67% majority for a reopening but the parents are not satisfied with this and demand a reopening despite them not having the majority.

Within Alameda County, there have been a total of 25,000 cases and 500 deaths due to COVID-19. A graph which showcases the trends of new cases displays the same trend as the rest of the US, with a dramatic increase of cases approaching in the future. Alameda County gave permission for elementary schools to reopen back in October and was hoping to follow up with middle and high schools. Unfortunately, Alameda County has returned to the purple tier due to the rapid increase of Covid-19 cases. School reopenings have been halted until the county returns back to the red tier, but reopened schools are allowed to stay open. 

CA Dept. of Public Health Statistics
Provided by Mercury News

Currently, there are over 55 million cases worldwide and there have been 1.3 million deaths. Several countries, such as the UK, have attempted to enforce strict regulations such as social distancing and mask wearing to fight against the pandemic. Despite this, a multitude of people are fighting to not wear masks or practice any form of social distancing. As a result of their behaviour, countries have seen many waves so far with the number of cases fluctuating. 

Recently, a reportedly effective and safe Covid-19 vaccine has been developed by Pfizer and BioNTech which gives hope for the restrictions to come to an end. Although this vaccine is still in its trial phase and has not been fully tested, it has displayed promising results so far, being over 95% effective at preventing Covid-19 in test subjects. 

Over the course of this pandemic, there have also been several attempts to reopen schools in the USA. Some states, such as Delaware and North Carolina, have attempted a partial reopening. In the reopened schools, students have an option between in person learning and remaining at home full time. In some schools, in person learning involves a rotation where students only attend a certain amount of days during the week, allowing for smaller classes and more social distancing. Unfortunately, a majority of the reopened schools have been forced to close again, with Covid-19 cases rising the duration of the time the schools were open. Even worse, some schools have neglected the dangers of Covid-19 and have rushed their reopenings. For instance, in North Paulding Highschool, located outside of Atlanta, Georgia, one student posted images of the reopened school on social media. In these pictures, crowded hallways lacking social distancing were shown along with several students not wearing masks. This shocked the public as the students were exposed to an enormous risk due to the school not enforcing any regulations.

North Paulding High School in Georgia (@Freeyourmindkid / Twitter)

Online schooling has been difficult for both teachers and students due to technical difficulties, personal struggles, and other obstacles. When asked for his opinion on online learning, WHS Junior Mehul Nair said, “The main struggle I have observed during this school year has been students struggling to focus on class. Teachers do not have access to their normal teaching methods making it difficult to relay the information effectively and engage the students. In addition, with everything online it makes it very easy for some students to get distracted whether it be social media or watching videos.” This is a sentiment shared by many students who were asked similar questions. They stated they had trouble understanding and remembering the material, with most of it simply going through the mind without being processed. Paying attention in class is not the only struggle students have faced. Low-income households are unable to afford the technologies necessary to attend class, putting their children at a severe disadvantage.

“The main struggle I have observed during this school year has been students struggling to focus on class. Teachers do not have access to their normal teaching methods making it difficult to relay the information effectively and engage the students. In addition, with everything online it makes it very easy for some students to get distracted whether it be social media or watching videos.”

Students, parents, and teachers have all expressed concern about the reopening of school. When asked if they were willing to have their children return to school, several WHS parents responded that they were unwilling to return unless it is safe to do so. One parent stated, “I am fine with online learning as it is the safest option for my child.” This is a sentiment shared by many because while online learning may not be ideal, it is much safer than learning in person.  If WHS were to reopen this school year, several precautions would be necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Mrs. Ackerson, a WHS math teacher, said, “I would not be comfortable returning to school right now. But in the scenario where we were to reopen I would like to see some measures put into place. For instance, installing new ventilation would be extremely important.” Ventilation would be one of the most important and expensive measures necessary for reopening school. Faulty ventilation could lead to contaminated air being cycled throughout entire buildings, infecting students and faculty. Students would need to be kept apart from each other with staff supervising to constantly enforce this policy. At the end of every day, all surfaces would need to be sanitized so as to not leave any surface infected. Following these procedures and finding the funding to do so may pose a challenge for Washington.

“I would not be comfortable returning to school right now. But in the scenario where we were to reopen I would like to see some measures put into place. For instance, installing new ventilation would be extremely important.”

The guidelines for reopening a school in Alameda County are available on the Alameda County website. The County has proposed a group system with a small cohort of students and staff to minimize the mixing of students, thus reducing the rate at which the virus will spread. When it is not possible to stay in the groups, mask wearing becomes a higher priority. It is of great importance that the interaction between different groups is to be restricted and they are to move as little as possible. Health screenings for students and staff would occur before entering the building and would be conducted via thermometers to check for fever. A more detailed account of how the health screenings will function is available on the ACPHD Health Screening Protocols website. Within the cohorts, the desks will remain at least six feet apart, but this may be relaxed for class instruction. Students and staff will be required to wear masks at all times unless they are exempt due to reasons such as health complications. 

The Fremont Unified School District currently does not have any preparations in place for reopening schools. When looking through the last three board meetings there was no mention of reopening and instead the primary focus was budget spending on buildings and new services. In the October 14th board meeting, plans were set in place for preseason training, yet no plans for school reopening were mentioned. However, in the November 12th meeting, athletes and coaches were allowed to begin tryouts and sports under extreme caution.When asked to comment on the reopening of school, the superintendent failed to respond.

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