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COMMENTARY: Setting students up for agony
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COMMENTARY: Setting students up for agony

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Kudos to the president of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, for making a statement that all Americans can agree on: Students need to be back in school. Absolutely!

The reality that children need to resume with learning this fall is an observation that is not even questionable. Everyone knows the need for and hopes for the safe return of students back into school buildings across the nation.

While it is imperative that children’s learning continue throughout the school year, the nation is divided on the mode of instruction. The president has suggested withholding federal dollars from schools that do not open back up in August in the traditional way. The president must be commended for his vision and his voice for a return to normalcy. However, in the face of the COVID 19 pandemic, returning to school in August means students and staff may possibly be exposed to great health danger.

If students return to school in August on a full-time status and superintendents, principals and academic officials inadvertently avoid any regulation mandated by the Centers of Disease Control, students can be exposed to greater agony in their lives.

Thinking through the lens of Shakespeare, to return to school or not to return, that is the question. This debate has been brewing new steam in recent weeks as the calendar gradually approaches the set date for the 2020-21 academic school year.

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Various perspectives have been argued in school district offices, town hall meetings and offices of governmental municipalities about what decisions should be made about returning to school. On both sides of the pendulum, strong rational observations are being noted and discussed.

All students should be in school. But not at the cost of refueling COVID-19. Not at the cost of students becoming ill. Not at the cost of teachers contracting the disease. And not at the cost of one additional person dying. Therefore, this is a call to exercise common judgment. Closing schools down earlier this year was agonizing enough. Students don’t need more agony in their lives.

It is understandable why there are concerns about having school buildings closed. Dating back to April 23, 1635, with the establishment of the first school in America, Boston Latin School, led by schoolmaster Philemon Portmont, a Puritan Settler, school has always been opened at the beginning of the academic year.

Local school districts and superintendents cannot buy into the notion that school needs to reopen on a full-time basis in August. That could possibly be lethal actions against children, faculty and staff members during this national health crisis. Therefore, it behooves superintendents to devise a plan that would bring about the highest level of optimization in the teaching and learning processes without rushing students back into school buildings with unfamiliar restrictions due to social distancing.

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Therefore, local school district leaders must consider hybrid learning opportunities that would maximize learning and minimize the spread of COVID-19.

For the sake of students, teachers and their health, school districts must be willing to make the kind of bold movement like Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, the most affluent African American school district in the country with an annual operating budget of $1.8 billion. That district decided to keep schools closed until February 2021 and move forward with a robust online distance education program. This action will keep the children, adults and everyone else safe.

The United States is so advanced in technology. Students are well abreast in using technology. Teachers have been trained to incorporate the use of technology into modern-day instruction. It is sufficient to say, then, that America is equipped and prepared to stand the test of time to engage students in teaching and learning activities that foster sustainable knowledge through creative online instruction. It is time to employ the technological skills that millions of dollars have been used to train educators and students to employ for the purpose of learning.

Safety first. Students need to be protected. Teachers ought to be appreciated for their love for the profession and their dedication to serving students in talented ways. They do not need to be forced to report to working environments that do not consider their health. This is insensitive and demonstrates a lack of care.

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Distance learning needs to be upheld in school districts beyond August. No child will be left behind by employing distance learning for a few more weeks or another month or so to ensure that students and teachers will be safe at school and work.

For those individuals advocating for students to go back to school and go back to normalcy, there is bad news for you. August will not guarantee a ticket back to normalcy in the classroom. With COVID-19 gaining strength, students will be put at risk on all levels throughout the school day. Rather than normalcy, students will have to contend with more agonizing situations at the cost of social distancing.

Social distancing will serve as a huge barrier to student success in the classroom. Social distancing will place many best practices on hold.

With social distancing, students will not be able engage in cooperative learning groups. Students will not be able to participate in turn-and-talk activities. Students will be restricted from engaging in four-corner activities -- a learning strategy that pushes them beyond mere knowledge and pushes them toward analysis, synthesis and evaluation in the framework of higher order thinking skills that aligns with Bloom’s taxonomy.

In a socially distancing classroom and school, children will not be able to sprint with their friends to the cafeteria. Students will not be able to share school supplies with their friends. Students will be prohibited from playing with each other within comfortable proximity.

On the school bus, students will be restricted from sitting with their friends. Students will not be able to freely walk up to their teachers to confer on a written response. Positive notions such as these will be discouraged.

Missing from the traditional school day will be the freedom of movement. Students will be constantly reminded to stay in their seats, to stay 6 feet away, to not touch anyone, to wash their hands, to sneeze in their sleeves and so forth. These could lead to agonizing moments.

The bottom line is that in a socially distanced classroom, one will not be able to experience the fun, excitement and the joy of the traditional school day.

All school districts and superintendents must be reminded that the safety of students, staff and other school employees needs to be top priority to consider in the decision when it is best for students to return to school.

Superintendents must make the right call on not endorsing a full reopening of schools in August. Superintendents across the nation must be aware of one fact: Opinion columnists have their pens erected in writing mode to construct narratives for school districts that become adversely affected by COVID-19.

School districts need to spare the shame and the danger of greater exposure to the coronavirus by keeping schools closed to limited hours and offering hybrid instruction in August if they not willing to approve a full online program for the first semester.

Byron Brown, a native of Eutawville, is a 1983 graduate of Holly Hill-Roberts High School. He is an English teacher for Prince George’s County Public Schools in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and serves as a professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Brown was named Clarendon School District 1 Teacher of the Year in 2004 and 2010. He is the author of five books and is the founder and organizer of the South Carolina Heritage and Humanities Festival and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education administration at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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