My School of Thought on…Returning to School during a Pandemic

The last time I wrote a blog, we were entering into the unknown at the end of March. Schools across the country closed, then remained closed until the end of the school year. Dr. Battle and the entire MNPS team responded quickly by delivering food, and other essential supplies. But our pivot to remote learning fell short in terms of instructional content and delivery.  We reflected on our response in the spring, and moved quickly to build a more sustainable and thoughtful plan for parents who would choose to keep their children home this fall. The district moved into high gear in order to offer families the option of in-person and remote learning in August. Every single day was critical this summer as teams across the district continued to deliver food and vital supports, but also planned for every potential scenario and challenge in the fall.

We hoped that national and state leaders would offer a unified and serious plan for testing, tracing, isolating, and treatment until a vaccine was ready for wide distribution. Then, instead of transmission rates going down in June and July, they skyrocketed, with Tennessee – and Nashville in particular – breaking its own records on infections and hospitalizations week after week. A serious national response to this pandemic has never materialized, and any efforts to mitigate spread, like mask-wearing, have not been mandated or even practiced by many national and state leaders, sending mixed messages on their necessity.

We knew by the end of June that we would be forced to rethink our opening plans. MNPS was one of the first large districts to call for an all-virtual opening, primarily because Tennessee has some of the earliest start dates in the country. Soon many other districts were forced to make the same impossible decision. According to Education Week, “By late August, 39 of the 50 largest school districts are choosing remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting over 6.1 million students”.

Starting the Year with Remote Learning

Given the state of the public health risk, our School Board was unified in support of the decision to start virtually, understanding that many of our students live in multi-generational households, and have family members that are at high risk. The same is true for our staff. We saw early on that Black and Latino families in Nashville were disproportionately impacted by the virus, with most not able to work from home. This pandemic has affected very single person in Nashville, but the data is clear that communities of color, low-income families, and the elderly, are bearing the largest burden in terms of illness and deaths.

We have watched as ongoing research in the U.S. and across the country was published about the role of children in spreading the virus. There has been conflicting data, with differing reports on how much children over and under ten years of age can carry the disease. Countries like Israel and South Korea have opened schools when they had much lower transmission rates that in the US, but then had to quickly close.

Post-Labor Day Plans

More recently, as we approached our self-imposed deadline of August 25th to announce our plans after Labor Day, we did not see numbers drop to levels that matched our in-person reopening goal of 10 cases per 100,000 residents (we were at 17 as of yesterday). To be certain, we have finally started to see improvements and the numbers are going in the right direction. With this in mind, Dr. Battle and her team developed a comprehensive plan for a phased-in return, prioritizing our students with disabilities, and our youngest learners first.

I have heard from many parents in my district, the vast majority of them with children in the earliest grades. They are struggling to make remote learning work for their children, and are truly exasperated. I know they are trying to juggle work, remote learning, and much more, and I hear and understand the anguish in their voices. We are faced with choices none of us would ever want to have to make. At the same time, we are trying to make decisions for over 80,000 students and 160+ schools. Let’s face it, we don’t have the luxury of private schools who can manage this process at a much smaller scale, with far fewer of the complexities that public schools have.

Many of the folks who are reaching out to me are citing recommendations from national groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics. While their guidance favors in person learning, there is nuance if you dig into the specific language of these reports, which also state in their current guidance:  In many places in the United States at the present time, opening schools to in-person learning for all students is likely not feasible because of widespread community transmission and high levels of positivity in testing. Even in these communities, though, in-person learning should still be the goal and may be feasible as the epidemiology improves. Countries that have been able to successfully open schools have had low rates of community SARS-CoV-2 circulation. While we may want to be in the place where Nashville has low rates of circulation, we just aren’t there yet.

I want to be completely candid. The lack of an evidence-based, science-centered national plan, and the politicization of return to school has created unnecessary tension and stress for school leaders.  Governor Lee has faced backlash from all sides as he tries to respond to the virus. As a result, there is an extraordinary amount of pressure placed on superintendents and school boards in Tennessee, and across the country. We are at a point now where the recovery of our economy and a “return to normal” often rests on the shoulders of superintendents instead of federal, state and city leaders. We see the pressure on school boards to ignore science, and to push back on directives for students to wear masks, which can trigger a recall of board members. I have received regular requests for a return to school with no mask mandates, and been accused of making decisions to spite the President. I assure you that my decisions are 100% focused on the health and safety of our students, staff, and community.

I am grateful that Dr. Battle has been clear and decisive, and that our board has supported her. For the first time in my memory, the MNPS family is unified, and rowing in the same direction. We are also collaborating with our charter schools, who support remaining in a virtual setting until October. Mayor Cooper has helped us get laptops and hotspots into the hands of every student who needs one. I recognize that remote learning is not a substitute for in-person learning, and never will be.

Not all parents support our decision. As we navigate this pandemic we know there are no good choices and that no plan that will get enthusiastic support from all quarters. I see the dissonance it creates when other counties and private schools are returning to school and playing sports. But we have seen increases in cases among sports teams in Tennessee, and have had teams in MNPS pause training this summer due to outbreaks. Dr. Battle is listening, and carrying the load for all of us. She is trying to balance the safety of students and staff with the immense pressure from many to return to school.

My commitment is to continue to listen, to push Dr. Battle and her team to adapt and improve the remote learning tools we are using, to execute well on our plans for in-person learning, and to ensure we are doing all we can for our students who are most at-risk. I urge Nashville to stay focused on the critical task of getting our numbers down, and on working together to ensure that we can safely return to in-person learning as soon as possible.