The Rush to Reopen: Why Classical Is Not Ready

By Nick Griffin (graphic Amelia Ross)

September 25, 2020

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After half a year of planning and anticipation, school is finally back in session. By Wednesday, a quarter of Classical’s student body will be in school every day. Though the halls are marked with tape and physical distancing is still compulsory, it feels like things are slowly — finally — returning to normal. Being able to have in person conversations, classes, and college application help is tempting. But going back to school, no matter how appealing, is downright dangerous. Though the district is trying to mitigate the negative consequences of distance learning, sending students back so quickly is a mistake. The district is failing to protect their students from a disease that kills more than 700 Americans every day and leaves many survivors with long-term health complications1. Returning in-person before our schools are ready is a gamble—a gamble with our education, our health, and our lives.

Throughout the summer, the Department of Education has been resistant to input from teachers and the community. As the beginning of the school year swiftly approached in late August, the school department used flawed data and misleading interpretation of facts to justify returning to school. When asked by a concerned parent in late August, Superintendent Harrison Peters alleged that 70% of parents wished to return to school in some capacity. What he failed to mention was that this number comes from the implications of Virtual Learning Academy (VLA) enrollment, not a comprehensive survey of the community. The district assumed that 70% of families wanted to return to school because only 30% had opted into VLA. In reality, many parents felt — and continue to feel — that in-person return to school is unsafe, yet did not want to risk losing their place at their school, have their child fall behind, or entrust their childrens’ education to VLA2 without sufficient information to make an informed decision.

Although opposition to returning has begun to die down, RIDE is still not addressing unsafe conditions at our school that have been present for years. Providence Public School buildings, with their outdated and neglected infrastructure, are not designed to handle the number of students they are now expected to contain. According to a 2017 study3 by the RI Department of Education, Classical was already overcrowded. The school has a capacity of just over 1,000 people, and an enrollment of over 1,100. Without physical distancing requirements, it was 10% over capacity. With new physical distancing requirements, even reducing the number of students by half is not enough to adequately protect students and teachers from catching and spreading COVID-19. Distancing requirements for RI schools have been reduced4 from six feet to three feet when the only other alternative is distance learning. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, reducing the distancing to three feet is recommended5 only when community spread has been brought under control. Based on the most recent data6, Providence county’s case numbers are once again on the rise (as of the week of September 19th).

Distance requirements and space are not the only pressing issues that must be addressed. According to the report, Classical’s mechanical systems (ventilation and heating) needed about $2 million in repairs to function properly. Clearly, the building is not fitted with the proper precautions to protect students from COVID-19. Instead of working to address ventilation issues over the summer, the state waited until early September to conduct walkthroughs of our school buildings, found serious problems, and still decided to send us back and accelerate our return plan. Good ventilation is key to reducing the spread of COVID-19 in enclosed spaces. As of now, ventilation in many classrooms consists of teachers opening windows and buying fans. Based on firsthand teacher testimony, the building has not been retrofitted at all. Classrooms look exactly as they did in March, and freshmen are having trouble adhering to physical distancing rules. A supposed “deep clean” has left behind dust and mold. These are insufficient and unsustainable fixes that will not keep students, teachers, and administrators safe during the winter.

Despite claims7 that the virus is nothing worse than a cold or flu, COVID-19 is not harmless. There have been accounts8 of otherwise healthy teens and young adults catching coronavirus and going on life support. Since this is a relatively new virus, scientific data on the long term effects9 is still being gathered. So far, some recovered patients have reported shortness of breath, heart problems10, and extreme fatigue months after contracting and surviving COVID-19. Based on our current understanding of the virus, children over ten are about as likely as adults to catch and spread the disease11. Children may be less likely than adults to become severely ill, but they can spread it to high risk individuals like parents, grandparents, faculty, and staff. The longer we stay in school without adequate safety precautions, the more likely we are to spread the disease and risk the lives of those around us. Teachers with high health risk are being put in danger of catching a potentially deadly disease, students are risking their health, all while Governor Raimondo trivializes the fact that cases will occur and the virus will spread into the community.

You may be asking, if the risk is so high, and our schools are not ready, why is the government pushing for reopening? According to local and national experts on pediatric health, distance learning has been extremely detrimental 12 to students’ mental and social health. Critical social development skills have been negatively affected as students spend months without any in-person interaction. Getting children back to school and socially interacting is important, even for high schoolers. Too often, arguments for going back to school do not spend enough time on the drawbacks of social isolation on teens and young adults. This isolation can lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety down the road.

Socioeconomic disparities have also become a key factor in the push to return to school. As schools struggled to adapt to the coronavirus in March and April, it became apparent that there are systemic issues that make it hard for students from poorer communities to succeed in a distance learning environment. Students without high-speed internet, high-quality computers, or stable housing are at a severe disadvantage to those with seamless internet, fast computers, and distraction free homes. By returning to school, these students will have a chance to catch up and excel.

Mental health and socioeconomic disparities are serious problems inherent to distance learning. They urgently need to be addressed. But by rushing back to school without the right safety precautions, the district runs the risk of further community spread and extending social isolation.

As cases are still high in the U.S. and a vaccine still looks to be months or years away, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. RIDE needs to make sure that school buildings are safe and teachers are well-equipped. Only then can students slowly be phased into in-person learning, allowing enough time between groups of students to ensure that community spread is minimized. If we ignore reality and rush into reopening, this pandemic will linger and more people will get sick. The quickest and safest path back to school might require us to stay at home for a little while longer.

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-long-term-effects/art-20490351 

  2. https://www.providencejournal.com/news/20200916/frustrating-start-for-providence-virtual-learning-academy 

  3. http://www.eride.ri.gov/SBA/analysis/school/Providence_Classical_High_School%20-%20FCA_Detail.pdf 

  4. https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/ 

  5. https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/ 

  6. https://ri-department-of-health-covid-19-data-rihealth.hub.arcgis.com/ 

  7. https://www.factcheck.org/2020/09/trumps-deceptive-comparison-of-the-coronavirus-to-the-flu/ 

  8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/23/brothers-coronavirus-virginia/ 

  9. https://www.cnn.com/world/live-news/coronavirus-pandemic-08-18-20-intl/h_8a611dffff28764310b7e62bc1e55be7 

  10. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects.html 

  11. https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/ 

  12. https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/child-adolescent-psychiatry/home-alone-the-mental-health-impact-of-covid-19-isolation-on-infants-children-and-adolescents/ 

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