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The Cost of Reopening Schools

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

On why it is vital we should reopen schools for students with disabilities, and what it will take to make it a reality.

The article was originally published for The Weeklyish, a newsletter for inclusionists.

Hey y’all,

Does anyone else feel like they have whiplash?

There is a lot to catch up on, and my apologies for the absence. After the tragic murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and riots, I needed some time to process. And TBH, I am still processing.

If anyone wonders where I stand, I’m not afraid to say #BlackLivesMatter. And if that offends you, there are plenty of posts and articles that help explain why saying this doesn’t make me a Marxist, but if that is your conclusion, you are entitled to it. I’m sure I’ll be sharing more of my thoughts about this at another time.

Frankly, there are more acute concerns to discuss, like reopening schools.

a young boy running down an empty school hallway with a “lion king” backpack, reopen schools

[Image Description] a young boy running down an empty school hallway with a “lion king” backpack (Photo by Caleb Oquendo from Pexels)

Pressure to Reopen

There is a lot of pressure to reopen schools right now. And it is coming directly from the top.

Absolutely right, @POTUS! Learning must continue for all students. American education must be fully open and fully operational this fall! — Secretary Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) July 7, 2020

And for the most part, I don’t disagree with the sentiment.

For nearly four months, students have been home getting a mere sliver of an education. The transition to digital learning has been good for some students, but not all. And for those students with multiple disabilities and complex behavioral needs, they have hardly received any education at all.

No Easy Answers

The trouble is, the answer is not as simple as saying, schools must be 100% virtual or 100% open for face to face instruction. And the price for saying either becomes a political football, no thanks to 45.

In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2020

Despite all the rhetoric, we need to plan to go back to school. But almost all of the plans that have come across my Twitter timeline and Facebook News Feed are conspicuously absent of any real solution for students with disabilities (especially those with complex support needs).

Supporting Students with Complex Needs

Here is just a sample of some of the reopening considerations floating around.

How to Reopen America’s Schools

How to reopen schools in fall? Experts weigh in

Here’s How We Reopen Schools This Fall

Even the most recent CDC guidelines don’t have anything explicitly addressing students with medical, emotional, or behavioral needs.

When I was a classroom teacher, a strategy that worked for me was to arrange the class and instruction for the students who required the most support first and then plan accordingly for the rest. One plan (the only one I have seen so far) put the needs of youngest students and those with significant disabilities first.

The youngest Akron Public Schools students and those with significant disabilities would be able to attend school five days a week this fall, but older students would have at least three days a week of learning from home under the first draft of the district’s reopening plan.

Why has this idea not been followed by more districts?

Under this plan, “parents can keep their children home if they want. The district will have an option for any student to do their work completely online.”

This plan (of course) will come at considerable expense, which 45 balks at.

But this is the cost of reopening.

This Generation’s 911

Nearly 20 years ago, the United States made significant changes for the benefit, safety, and security of all Americans. And those changes are still in effect to this day. Even then, some said the changes that were made infringed on the rights of our citizens.

Just like we aren’t going back to the pre-911 days of taking baseball bats, box cutters, and scissors onto planes, we aren’t going to back to a world without some sort of social distancing and hygiene measures.

We might as well get used to these changes and to treat this reality as anything else is wishful thinking. But that also doesn’t mean we give up. We didn’t let terrorism win, so we shouldn’t give up against a virus either.

Mask It or Casket

If we want schools to reopen, and I desperately do, we must require masks. — Joe | Chendango (@Chendango1) July 2, 2020

According to some studies, not everyone even has to wear one, which would satisfy those who are “exempt.” In a recent article from the University of California San Francisco, researchers were asked how many people need to wear masks to reduce community transmission?

“What you want is 100 percent of people to wear masks, but you’ll settle for 80 percent,” said Rutherford. In one simulation, researchers predicted that 80 percent of the population wearing masks would do more to reduce COVID-19 spread than a strict lockdown.

If you can’t look at the evidence right in front of you and see that you should be wearing a mask, then (bless your heart) I don’t know how to help you.

Inherent Risks in Reopening Schools

In her article “Here’s How We Reopen Schools This Fall” in Slate, author Emily Oster writes:

We…need to be realistic. When we reopen schools, some people at schools—kids, staff—will get COVID-19. Some of these infections would happen anyway, outside of school. Many of them will not be driven by school contacts. But there will be in some in-school transmission, no matter how careful we are. This is the unfortunate reality. Some of these people may get very sick. If we are not willing to accept this, we cannot open schools. We also, in that case, should not open anything else.

In my hierarchy of concerns, I am putting kids first, and I echo the worries of the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.

As someone who values inclusive education, how can I advocate for anything less than in-person school, especially for students with emotional and behavioral needs?

The trouble is that I feel that more consideration has been taken for MLB players to come back to play professional baseball than for teachers to go back to work in public schools.

The Council for Exceptional Children has been advocating for emergency funding for schools. Since the coronavirus won’t magically disappear on its own, I suggest that Congress makes the right choice to invest in protecting our nation’s children and teachers.

What’s Next?

According to NPR, the CDC will be issuing five new documents next week about how to reopen schools. We will see if there will be any guidance on how to support students with disabilities and protect teachers.


Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.

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