Rotherham: Why America’s Schools Should Stay Open This Summer

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This article is part of The 74’s ongoing coverage of how the coronavirus crisis is affecting students, teachers and families. Read more at the74million.org/coronavirus and sign up for The 74’s daily morning newsletter to get the latest news and analysis delivered to your inbox.

Let me stipulate that I love summer. I love the warm weather, the sounds at night, the lazy long days and seemingly endless evenings. I paddle, fish, hike, camp and cycle — all activities that are best in the summer. I ride my bike across Massachusetts in August and plan vacations around Cape Cod League baseball and lobster rolls. I make a point to go to the same Delaware beach each summer that I’ve gone my entire life. Even decades later, I can distinctly remember the feeling of freedom as I headed out the door on the warm last day of school.

Why am I telling you all this? To establish my lazy-day bona fides so you’ll understand how much it pains me to suggest that we cancel summer this year.

Not all of it, of course, and hopefully not the great weather and some fun times. But education leaders need to have a conversation about keeping students in school — remotely, most likely — for part of this coming summer.

I get how unpopular this idea will be. Believe me, if my kids knew I was writing this, social distancing would not be a problem in our house.

But the unavoidable fact is that school leaders have two choices. One is to essentially throw up our hands and say the novel coronavirus is just an act of God — what can you do? Let’s just muddle through. The other is to say that, yes, this is an unprecedented and remarkable situation in modern American education, but despite that, schools are going to live up to the warranties they make to students.

The first approach is seen in the blanket canceling of school with little thought as to what students will be doing between March and the fall, when the next school year starts. The rush to cancel all assessments rather than to parse which ones could be given, how, when and why. The impulse to close schools for multiple months rather than wait and see what happens one month down the road.

The warranty approach, by contrast, is seen in the districts and schools that are scrambling to figure out how to give all students the education they deserve despite this crisis. That’s not just about ensuring hot meals and food for children who need it; it’s also about making sure kids are learning even at this unprecedented time — and some districts, charter networks and schools are leading the way.

In March, schools closed across almost the entire country. Normal operations won’t resume until August or September — almost half a year. Even if that happens, cluster containment will likely be the public health strategy for addressing the novel coronavirus, so schools will have to contend with short-term closures until a vaccine is available, something experts say isn’t likely until early 2021.

This isn’t tenable, absent a real plan to continue the cadence of learning for students and to mitigate the effects of what is happening now and will continue this spring. It’s not tenable if we mindlessly adhere to an archaic school calendar. And it’s not tenable if everyone is even half as concerned about equity as they claim to be.

Much of the discussion about education in the wake of these school closures centers on online learning, a fixture in the places most national education leaders inhabit. Lost in the conversation are all the kids who were sent home with packets to work on because there is no online learning plan. Or with nothing at all. And all the students for whom online learning isn’t an option because of their own lack of access to the internet, computers or both. Districts that are employing innovative strategies like giving families portable internet devices or using school buses to deliver Wi-Fi are a credit to the sector. But these are not comprehensive solutions, and without a real plan and real leadership, American students — especially the least advantaged — will lose incalculable learning this year, and maybe next year too.

Keeping school open also has economic and political benefits. From an economic standpoint, operating schools in some form — if not in-person instruction, then ongoing distance learning — keeps a lot of people working and puts dollars into the economy. Millions of jobs are tied to our schools, so more school time means more economic activity of all sorts.

Politically, education advocates will be playing a stronger hand if they can say schools did absolutely everything they could to rise to this challenge and serve kids rather than just play defense. It gets harder to justify sending big dollars to schools when the sector lacks bold leadership and big ideas, as the federal stimulus bill shows. It has money for schools, but not an amount sufficient to meet the challenges that seem increasingly likely to unfold this year. There were no big ideas, and there was little leadership. People were more concerned with firing up old fights about special education and accountability requirements than with making a run at boldly leading this sector into the unknown. Let’s not repeat that mistake on the next stimulus.

Finally, keeping kids in school — again, virtually or in person, depending on how this situation evolves — gives young people structure and organization. As this crisis wears on and the novelty of our national adventure in homeschooling wears off, that seemingly statist idea will look better and better for millions of families.

Given the likely economic pain, concerns about travel and real risks from this novel coronavirus, this probably won’t be the summer when families take their epic vacation. Anyone want to go on a cruise now? And for most Americans, summer is a season, not a verb, anyway. So keeping schools open longer and having sufficient time off for family vacations is achievable. That’s why, if there ever was a year to hit pause on a full-throated summer, this is it. And it might be what we have to do to live up to the promise we made to students what seems like an eternity ago now, last fall, when this school year started.

This article is part of The 74’s ongoing coverage of how the coronavirus crisis is affecting students, teachers and families. Read more at the74million.org/coronavirus and sign up for The 74’s daily morning newsletter to get the latest news and analysis delivered to your inbox.

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a national nonprofit organization working to support educational innovation and improve educational outcomes for low-income students, and serves on The 74’s board of directors. In addition, among other professional work, he is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, writes the blog Eduwonk.com, teaches at The University of Virginia and is a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors.

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