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Editorial: Education system faces hardest test

Editorial: Education system faces hardest test

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The U.S. education system is facing its biggest test yet this fall and possibly beyond in finding a balance between promoting learning and reducing the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

It’s a balancing act featuring three options — returning to regular classrooms, reverting to remote learning or a hybrid, with in-person attendance rotating with home studies.

President Donald Trump, Gov. Kim Reynolds, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine are among those calling for in-person instruction rather than remote learning.

The pediatricians want students “physically present in school” as much as possible because of major health, social and educational risks to keeping them at home, including potential abuse.

Remote classes don’t work for many children, particularly minorities unlikely to have access to computers or Wi-Fi.

Harvard and Brown researchers found that among 800,000 students using the Zearn online math program, those in high-income ZIP codes maintained progress, those in middle-income ZIP codes declined by a third, and it was half in lower-income ZIP codes.

And many parents aren’t able to stay home to provide or monitor progress.

But in-person learning has complications, including whether to wear masks, classroom sizes, and physical distancing, including lunch, recess, hallway traffic and busing.

While students under 10 are much less susceptible to COVID-19, they aren’t immune, according to a South Korean study. If asymptomatic, they could infect unsuspecting family members and teachers.

Studies have shown that students ages 10-19 have the same capacity to contract the disease as adults.

Teachers have issues, too, particularly the 28% nationwide in the high risk group over 50. Surveys indicate a third of teachers don’t want to return to classrooms.

The Iowa State Education Association, the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers are wary of environments with limited precautions to protect staff and students.

Inevitable reduced class sizes — small groups or pods — will require additional substitute teachers and para-educators.

The AFT doubts funding is forthcoming — an estimated $116.5 billion in supplies and staff — to make safety feasible.

Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have threatened to defund schools that don’t open full time. Yet when Reps. Van Taylor, R-Texas, and Josh Harder, D-Calif., asked DeVosto issue “guidance and training” to educators on reopening schools, she was clueless. Give her another F.

Reynolds wants schools “to prioritize in-person learning for core academic subjects.”

The Legislature, she added, mandated that “most schools cannot provide more than half of their instruction to any student through remote learning” unless she authorizes it.

To that end, the Iowa Department of Education punted to local districts with 10 useless guidelines, including no guarantee exists that “physical distancing can be met in all school settings throughout the entire school day.”

Better to look to Europe and Asia, where student groups are small and desks are farther apart, lessening the need for personal protective equipment in classrooms.

It provided no guidance on face masks other than districts should prevent stigmas “associated with the use or non-use of facial coverings to support a respectful, inclusive, and supportive school environment.”

The better recommendation would have used a community’s 5% positive testing rate as a common threshold, although 3% is considered ideal. It’s been 9.3% since Iowa started testing, but around 6% last week.

Temperatures need not be checked at the door. Illinois mandates them.

When someone is sick, “preventive health changes” should be implemented. Appropriate actions aren’t cited. Taiwan keeps schools open with one case, but closes with two, which it hasn’t had to do.

If someone contracts COVID-19, confidentiality is recommended, but contract tracing is advocated — a tricky legal gauntlet given health privacy rules.

Among the no-brainers: Ill individuals are advised to stay home and post signs about stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Administrators and teachers weren’t involved in the process.

Said Roark Horn, the former Hudson superintendent now heading the School Administrators of Iowa, “The Reopening Guidance did not line up with what school leaders were expecting. … Administrators were anticipating more specifics for things like social distancing and the use of face coverings.”

Said ISEA President Mike Beranek, “The Iowa Department of Education’s reopening guidance is inconsistent with (Centers for Disease Control) guidance, common sense and good public policy, and we cannot recommend support.”

Federal and state officials are eager to score political points by issuing mandates, but stingy with advice or funding.

So with time running out, local school districts must make quick decisions without uniform guidance, while lacking adequate funds for PPE, more substitute teachers and para-educators.

They are left to incorporate best practices from overseas studies. But that comes with a caveat, because much of Europe and Asia has flattened the curve, while the U.S. is going in the opposite direction.

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