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Local control of schools is a good thing. Until a pandemic strikes.

Michael Raponi
Michael Raponi
Opinion
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As this strange school year came to a close, actions taken to protect students and teachers from COVID-19 warrant reflection. An operative question is: Were students the center of the universe as governors, health officials, school districts, and teacher unions grappled with and negotiated when and how to close and reopen schools during the pandemic? I don’t think they were in many cases.

I was particularly struck by a photo in a major publication last month of three lone ninth graders “engaged” in Zoom-in-a-Room learning at Panorama High School in Southern California, not far from where I grew up. The students appeared to be spaced about 20 feet apart and wore masks. No teacher was in the room.

The strange scene illustrated the reopening of public schools in many locations in California. Attendance wasn’t mandatory, masks were required regardless of social distance, and students went to school voluntarily to learn remotely. Teachers need not be present. In Santa Ana School District in Orange County, with more than 40,000 students, schools were closed to in-person learning all year, not to reopen until the fall even though in April COVID-19 case rates there measured 2.6 per one hundred thousand people—far below the case-rate of 25 determined by the California Department of Public Health as the safe threshold for reopening schools.

Examples like these permeated the country: schools open full-time; schools open part-time; schools open without teachers present; and schools not open at all. Comparing COVID-19 case-rate differentials in localities where schools were open or closed only added to the madness. We should not take this lightly—the pandemic and resulting school policies under local control unnecessarily created student haves and have-nots, meaning those with the opportunity to attend school for in-person learning and those denied the same opportunity. 

Things weren’t much different in Nevada. In Washoe County, for example, middle and high schools were open all year for in-person learning under a hybrid model except for temporary closures in December and January because of infection spikes. Elementary schools there steadily remained open all school year. Most other school districts made similar efforts. While not optimal, part-time in-person learning was far better than full-time virtual learning on many obvious fronts. And although some families chose to keep children home out of safety concerns, having it available made a world of difference for many thousands of other students and their working parents.

Yet despite the effort of most school districts in Nevada to keep schools open at least on a part-time basis, more than 75 percent of students in the state did not have such access to in-person learning for most of the year. Those are the majority of the 323,000 students in Clark County, where local control kept in-person learning off limits until April.

But school board decisions weren’t the only concern. Teacher unions also wielded a lot of control over school reopenings, especially in big-city school districts. It was only recently that Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued an emphatic demand that schools must open full-time next fall. But the demand appeared disingenuous because it came so late. Stating so, when everything else had either opened up for business or was in the process of opening up, and with mask mandates disappearing by the second, putting the union’s foot down rang hollow. The damage to students—and to the union’s credibility—had already been done.

Then there were the stories of parents pleading with school districts to open schools. Let’s think about that. In San Francisco, the city sued the local school district to reopen its classrooms. To further the point, it was on Feb. 1 that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was pushed to the brink when she ordered teachers to return to the classroom. She cited multiple examples of charter and private school systems serving more than 40 thousand students and safely operating. The Chicago Teachers Union complied—some two and a half months later on April 19—after weeks of negotiations. 

The problem is the student haves and have-nots weren’t segregated by dangerous proximity to areas with high COVID-19 infection rates as much as by policy differences, teacher-union influence, and other local governance decisions. But there has been one constant that transcended all jurisdictions: Since the inception of the pandemic the death rate for ages up to 17 years old has held steady in Nevada and nationally—statistically at zero.

On February 17, Gov. Sisolak issued Emergency Directive 038 to “ensure that students in every county in Nevada have the opportunity to learn in-person, whether full- or part-time.”

But until the spring, students did not have equal access and they experienced anything but equity. Pending any clear and present danger to their health and well-being, this type of disparate treatment of an innocent segment of society never in any real danger from COVID-19 must not happen again. 

If governors have the power to close schools with the stroke of a pen, they should wield the same authority to reopen them consistently—according to safe and sound scientific data —and at least to the point where all families have a choice as to whether or not their children will attend school. Virtual learning may have worked satisfactorily for some students. But we know that’s not near the case for other students, especially those in lower income households without the necessary hardware and connectivity to properly engage. And many students who did have full access often became disconnected themselves, and their failing grades showed it.

Local control should not supersede the fundamental right of all to a comparable public education, especially when the decisions whether or not to allow schools to be open differ by county lines, union contracts, politics, and little else. Not to mention the detrimental health effects to children and teens caused by social isolation, the results of which are becoming clearer by the day. If schools are ever forced to close again under statewide emergency orders—and let’s hope they never are—they should be equally forced to reopen consistently so students across Nevada and everywhere else are treated the same.

Michael Raponi is a contributing columnist to The Nevada Independent. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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