As they navigate a pandemic, grant public school officials some grace

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COVID-19 has turned public education on its head.

State Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, who doesn’t blame the parents who want to pull their kids out of public schools, believes they deserve other options. “The virtual education schools provide is a failure… private schools soldier on, doing the job they’ve chosen and are paid to do,” she write in a recent Facebook post.

It’s hard to argue against the benefits of seated learning, and I sympathize with O’Laughlin’s frustration. However, most private schools don’t have the challenge of large class sizes and transportation responsibilities.

O’Laughlin, a Republican from Shelbina who chairs the Missouri Senate’s education committee, wants to change policies now. But lessons from past pandemics suggest that, in times of crisis, more chaos is not the answer.

During the 1918 Spanish Flu, most schools closed. Schoolwork was minimal, and children kept busy with chores, practiced their penmanship, and worked on math problems. The country was in the middle of World War I, and a sense of hyper-patriotism helped the country come together to fight the influenza pandemic.

However, in New York, Chicago and New Haven, Conn., public schools remained open. For children living in cramped and dirty tenement houses, schools were a haven where students could benefit from well-ventilated rooms, medical inspections and robust school hygiene programs. Even then, some parents believed their children were safer at home with their mothers, and absenteeism grew to 50 percent as influenza cases spiked.

Researchers who analyzed school closure policies of 43 U.S. cities during the 1918 pandemic learned that “smooth implementation was associated with clear lines of authority among agencies and with transparent communication between health officials and the public.” The study even gave a nod to the City of St. Louis, citing “the bold leadership of the health commission” as key to maintaining a sense of normalcy during extended school closures.

In some communities, “preexisting conditions in the political and social environment fostered suspicion and miscommunication among leaders and community members.”

One hundred years later, school administrators and local health officials are still calling the shots and failing to make everyone happy.

Last month, O’Laughlin called a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education to give Columbia Public Schools families a chance to air their grievances with the district’s policy on in-person learning. Parents testified that their children struggle with online learning. Some are failing classes, and others suffer from depression and anxiety related to social isolation. One parent blamed school leaders for bad planning in response to the pandemic, and another just said his child needs to be with friends.

No one doubts that these experiences are traumatic.

“We have upended our society all in the name of saving children from a virus they — from every indication — are unlikely to get anyway or have serious complications from,” O’Laughlin said during the hearing. She wants kids back in school and is ready to entertain options that give parents more choice.

The senator is right about the science. But children aren’t the only ones in a classroom. The health risks to staff and families concerns most school leaders. Administrators are terrified because there is a complete lack of the ability to control the situation.

During the hearing, Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman agreed online learning has consequences, but infection rates in his district are among the highest in the state. This month their board voted to end in-person schooling for elementary students. The entire district will go virtual for at least the rest of the semester.

Administrators also struggle with finding staff to teach in-person. Quarantine protocols have exacerbated the teacher shortages in many districts. Even if COVID cases are low among the students, educators continue to test positive for the virus. The Independence School District will now allow college students without teaching credentials to work as substitutes.

And Gov. Mike Parson, along with the heads of the state’s health and education departments, agreed to relax the quarantine rules and will allow teachers exposed to the virus to return to the classroom as long as they wear masks.

Federal and state policy offers only guidance. The Missouri Department of Education’s website says, “Decisions to open Missouri schools, along with the methods/patterns of instruction being used during the 2020-21 school year, are made by local school leaders and local boards of education.”

That means superintendents across the state have to decide what’s best for the 900,000 children enrolled in public education in real-time, where the data changes daily.

As coronavirus cases spike across the state, it’s a no-win situation for all.

When the vaccines arrive and the hospitals empty, maybe we can have that conversation on how to improve schools and get students back on track. But for now, let’s give our school officials a break and grant them some much-needed grace.