(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic, schools are reopening amid more uncertainty than ever. Just about the only thing districts know for sure is that last year’s lockdowns and online learning were a disaster for the emotional health and academic progress of school-aged children — especially the poor — and that in-person instruction is beginning amid the surging delta variant.
Reopening schools safely is more important and more challenging than ever. Only about half of school districts are requiring masks, while nine states have effectively banned mask mandates. The number of districts that are offering online-school options has doubled to nearly 80 percent in recent weeks.
So persuading families to send children back to school, and providing assurances that they’ll be safe — especially those under 12 who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated — depends on the creativity and commitment of mayors, school districts and teachers.
Localities can no longer take public-school enrollments for granted. The rapid spread of both Covid and alternative-schooling options, from online charter-schools to voucher programs that effectively transfer tax dollars to private and religious schools, have made the return of children to classrooms critical not only for their educational and psychological well-being, but to the long-term viability of public schools.
In the cities and neighborhoods hardest hit, many residents are so fearful of sending their children back to school that they contributed to a 3% nationwide drop in public school enrollments, with the biggest decline, about 13%, among preschool and kindergarten children. In some places, for example Newark, N.J., enrollments are down by a third across both public and charter schools.
Meanwhile, private-school enrollment is up. In a survey of 160 independent schools, at least half said their enrollments were up; another 20% saw enrollments stay about the same. Many said they were at full capacity and didn’t have room for more children.
In Republican-controlled states, which are being hit hardest by the highly contagious delta variant, bans on mask requirements threaten to further erode public-school enrollment, and are pushing many families into religious, private and online schools; some of the latter have a record of fraud and abuse. The pandemic is also fueling school-voucher legislation nationwide; over two-thirds of state legislatures are considering bills that would expand or introduce private-school choice programs, some of which benefit fly-by-night schools with dubious curricula, such as classes in creationism instead of biology.
Indeed, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is encouraging parents to use the state’s recently expanded school-voucher program to flee public schools. While some districts are defying Florida’s masking ban, DeSantis is threatening district funding and the pay of educators in retaliation, even as the state’s Covid deaths and hospitalizations surge.
But getting families to return children to public schools also will require teachers and schools, which are often the most trusted neighborhood institutions, to educate and persuade parents that in-person learning is safe and the best thing for their children. Washington, D.C., where Covid cases are up fivefold, has had some success relying on schools and health organizations to boost vaccinations, as well as by offering incentives, including a college-scholarship raffle, free AirPods and gift cards.
School districts will want to emulate St. Louis, where the district has teamed up with the American Federation of Teachers on a series of “safe start” events, including back-to-school fairs featuring free school supplies, protective equipment, groceries, prizes and vaccinations. The AFT — which along with the other major teachers’ union, the National Education Association, has said it would support local vaccination requirements — also has allocated $5 million in grants for such programs nationwide. In St. Louis, AFT members also have placed 3,000 calls to local families urging them to get vaccinated.
“To have their teachers on the other end of the call, sharing their own stories,” goes a long way to mitigating vaccine-skepticism among Black parents, said Gloria Nolan, the district’s family liaison — a new position in which Nolan advocates for both vaccinations and bringing students back to district schools.
Persuading parents that school will be fun, relevant and safe is not only good for their children’s academic and social development. It’s the surest way to bring them back to classrooms.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."
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