The State of Southern Schools

By Michael Foley

“OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!” the President of the United States tweeted on August 3. Well, that’s what’s happening, and so far, the results have been terrifying.

That’s especially true in North Paulding High School in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area of Georgia, where members of the football team had already tested positive before the school officially reopened. State officials in Georgia have issued guidelines for safely reopening schools, but no mandates. At North Paulding, students are ostensibly given a choice between attending classes in-person or enrolling online, but in reality, many students have been placed on a “waiting list” for online learning. In the meantime, they’re being required to attend in-person classes, where social distancing and wearing masks is encouraged but not required for both students and faculty.

Now, at least two students have been suspended for tweeting photos and videos of North Paulding hallways crowded with unmasked students. The principal has warned the student body that criticizing the school on social media will be met with discipline, and the school district’s superintendent has gleefully reported that day-to-day activities in the schools are “remarkably normal,” belying the fact that these are not normal times, and a safe school should not look normal. Normal, in this case, may actually be the worst-case scenario. Meanwhile, in Gwinnett County, hundreds of teachers have reported unsanitary conditions to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The story is a bit different in each state. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, along with the lieutenant governor and top state legislators, has said that local health authorities can only shut down schools after an outbreak has already hit the school, not as a preemptive measure. In fact, they have already overruled some schools who were planning to delay in-person classes until September. Louisiana has taken the complete opposite approach, granting local school boards total autonomy in deciding when to open; schools in and around Baton Rouge and New Orleans will remain closed until after Labor Day, while most of the rest of the state is opening on schedule. Arkansas will be requiring all public schools to remain open five days per week, no matter what. Tennessee’s governor has said that they don’t have the testing capacity to follow the CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools, and so, instead of delaying school openings, they will choose to ignore those guidelines. Similarly, the South Carolina Superintendent of Education has said she will ignore a state task force’s recommendation to have a full-time nurse in every school.

And then there is Mississippi, where more than a hundred students of Corinth High School have been placed in quarantine after multiple students tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week of class. Despite that, the Corinth School District has no plans to close. Anonymous sources in the Mississippi education system have told me that more than thirty students have been placed in quarantine in the Simpson County School District, and teachers throughout the state have been actively weeping out of frustration over the constantly changing expectations the county offices are placing on them. In Mississippi’s defense, Governor Tate Reeves has done more than states like Georgia. For instance, he has made masks mandatory for all students and school faculty members in the state (although sources tell me that some faculty members are disregarding that mandate), and has delayed school openings in eight hotspot counties. The problem is, something like sixty-three of the eighty-five counties in Mississippi could be considered hotspots. And Reeves is not requiring schools to publicly disclose if and when they have an outbreak, and some school officials are forbidding their staff from speaking out, meaning we may never have an accurate picture of just how widespread COVID-19 is in Mississippi schools.

There is a growing sentiment that teachers are somehow failing their country by being reluctant to return to classrooms in the middle of a pandemic, that they should toughen up and do their jobs just like healthcare workers. But nurses and doctors are actively fighting COVID-19, while reconvening schools is actively spreading it. Contrary to President Trump’s claim, children are not immune from contracting and transmitting COVID-19. And schools are so much more than children: there are teachers and bus drivers and custodians and cafeteria workers and much more, all who have their own communities to interact with, to contract from, to transmit to. And the children themselves, of course, have families, often elderly or in poor health, that they can spread COVID-19 to.

And, to be clear, I don’t mean to belittle the importance of in-person schooling; it is demonstrably better than online learning. But virtual classrooms aren’t quite as ineffective as politicians have depicted them to be, and we can still improve them. After less than a full semester, we can’t just throw in the towel on the single most viable alternative to in-person schooling. We can learn from our mistakes and improve the system.

I’m not saying we need to abandon schools indefinitely until we have a handle on COVID-19. I’m simply suggesting that we could stand to be a bit less resistant to high-risk schools closing down, for the sake of saving lives. The problem, thus far, is inconsistency in determining how and when schools close. The key decision makers in that are the governors. Right now, some Southern governors are undermining school boards that want to go above and beyond safety guidelines, while giving a pass to schools that aren’t meeting the recommendations. To make a positive change, we have to demand that the governors take more accountability for how COVID-19 spreads through our schools and our communities.

Southern schools have some of the earliest start dates in the country. We’re in the spotlight for how we address schooling. So far, we’re largely flailing, if not failing, but we still have time to regroup and become a positive example for the rest of the nation.

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