Letter to Gov. Walz: Open Schools this Fall

School_Desks_Chalk_Board.jpgJoe Thalman, candidate for MN House in District 49B, was contacted by a local parent concerned that the closure of Minnesota’s schools under Gov. Walz’s unilateral shutdown order would be continued into the next school year. Following is the letter that the parent is trying to get published in the Star Tribune and other local papers. 

An open letter to Governor Walz,

I am writing to you as a mother of three young boys and a former high school teacher. Please reopen schools in the fall for the well-being of our children, our families, and our state.

When you initially closed schools with the Stay at Home Order, I was with you. I understood this was a necessary, temporary measure intended to flatten the curve of Covid-19. We presumed, even if kids didn’t present symptoms, that they might be “asymptomatic viral bombs” who would bring the virus home to more vulnerable adults. So, in an incredible act of solidarity, teachers, students and parents rose to the occasion to protect the common good.

Since then, we have acquired more tests and data. Data suggests that children are the least likely to contract Covid-19, the least likely to have severe symptoms, and the least likely to spread the virus. In fact, children tend to be the last in their household to contract the virus, not the first, as we originally thought. Given this information, reopening schools in the fall should be a top priority. Childcare centers, like the YMCA, that have remained open through the pandemic have successfully demonstrated that we can safely do this now. Yes, there may be some risk in sending students back to school, but there is also a great deal of risk in keeping them home.

At some point, keeping kids out of the school building could create a greater public health and mental health crisis than the one we are attempting to avoid.

Kids need school. Learning is social. They need to learn from adult teachers and learning specialists who are not their parents. And, parents need to be able to return to work. If e-learning continues into the fall, a generation of kids will have significant gaps in their foundational learning, lack key social and emotional skills, and become even more addicted to screens. While many of the damaging effects of distance learning are not as readily measurable and monitored as the number of Covid hospitalizations, the costs may be just as real and far reaching in the long run, especially for our elementary age students and their parents.

Our school did an incredible job facilitating e-learning, but it was still a poor substitute for the learning that happens in a classroom surrounded by peers. As a first grader, my son’s success in e-learning was entirely correlated to the amount of attention I was able to give him; but, with other kids to care for, my attention is often limited. I can’t help but think of all the kids who don’t have a person available to help facilitate their learning, a safe place to play, or siblings to play with. Sadly, distance learning places a disproportionate burden on families whose lives are already stressed. Adding e-learning to the plates of these families can be the tipping point into depression, addiction, obesity, suicide, neglect, and abuse. Students’ ability to thrive in e-learning was likely much more a reflection of their family’s circumstances than the students’ intellect, effort or ability. If e-learning continues, the gap between the kids who have parental involvement and those who don’t will become an achievement chasm.

It was one thing to finish a school year under these conditions. But it is an entirely different situation to start a year with e-learning. As a fellow educator, you are aware that teachers need the first few months of the school year to establish a rapport with their students by creating a classroom culture of expectations and routines that allow kids to feel safe and thrive. Much of what happens in a classroom depends on a
child’s relationship with their teacher. These relationships would be difficult, if not impossible, to form virtually, without any in-person foundation.

Instead of asking schools to come up with three contingency plans for the fall, I propose that you ask them to:

1. Prepare for full time, in-person learning while striving to mitigate risk by learning best practices and safety protocols that have been effective in other schools around the world.
2. Offer an accredited online learning program to any student that needs to opt-out of in person learning due to health concerns for themselves or their family members.
3. Give any faculty who are at-risk a leave of absence from physical presence in the school building. Use these teachers to help facilitate distance learning for the aforementioned group of students.

With this plan, you are not penalizing those who cannot return to school because of the virus, but you are allowing the majority of the population to resume their lives. We must protect as many lives as possible from being lost to this disease with effective mitigation efforts. But, we must weigh each of those decisions with the lives we are upending in the process.

Thank you for your time and consideration.