I am the mother of a medically complex child, and I am concerned that the national and local plans to return children to school this fall fail to take into account the needs of families and communities like mine. As patient advocate and education advocate, I am fortunate to talk to many families about their needs and concerns during this pandemic. Families, the primary stakeholders who have been missing from state and local planning teams, have lots of questions as we prepare for a new school year, and there is little information that paints a clear picture of what we should expect.
It’s easy for families to pick apart the ways social distancing plans won’t work well in schools—our school district and state leaders should be listening. The CDC and Governor DeWine have released documents about how districts should navigate school reopenings, but those documents suggest no real solutions regarding the unique needs of vulnerable communities.
For families trying to figure out how safe the school setting will be for our children this fall, we want to understand the process districts are undergoing and trust that their plans will protect our children’s safety. We want to be invited to participate, share concerns and help adapt the plans as necessary. Families need to know that the reopening plan has considered their needs.
Infection control is a complex process, as any hospital leader can tell you, and knowing which local infection control experts were part of the planning process could help families feel more confident about their safety concerns. The experts providing advice to our districts need to articulate the racial and ethnic risk factors of a community as part of the determination to open schools.
Families of students with disabilities and illnesses want to know how our children will be protected. Conditions like asthma are more prevalent in urban populations, and each district’s plans should consider what additional protections need to be in place for more vulnerable populations. This should be a data-informed assessment of the community’s health needs and potential for exposure, and it should be shared with the community.
In addition to asking the right questions, families need to be informed. Districts should be communicating throughout the planning process and seek feedback as they go. This has to comprise more than online surveys. Districts should use multiple communication channels to engage families. After all, how can districts inspire the community to trust their plans if the community is in the dark about them?
Districts should be prepared to document and respond to individual concerns and develop alternative plans for every student who needs one. Each district’s plans should also include a process for communicating updates and educating families about safety and infection control. How will families know if a child was potentially exposed to the virus? How will plans change if the school or community becomes a hot spot? These processes should be outlined before the school year begins so families can feel safer.
The needs of students with disabilities are of high concern as well. Families need to know how their districts will resume compliance with IEP and 504 plans, a great many of which were abandoned during school closures last spring. The high suspension rates seen for diverse learners and boys of color is likely to get worse when mask mandates and social distancing are necessary parts of the school day. Districts need to assure parents that they are monitoring equity and have a plan to address mask compliance without increasing suspensions and the disruptions they cause to family life.
At the state level, there’s a need for our legislators to understand the impact of the recommendations on each district, based on data. Schools with more challenges and risk factors should be funded accordingly or should shift to virtual schooling to reduce community risk. Community risk factors for COVID-19 might be better understood by knowing the proportion of children who live with grandparents, have unstable food and housing, have parents who are essential workers, have chronic illnesses, and other factors that contribute to the spread and severity of the virus.
This crisis presents an opportunity, at the state level, to reconsider the $300 million cut from K-12 education and revisit the fact that Ohio’s school funding model was long ago determined illegal. The pandemic is further disadvantaging already underfunded schools, and it’s past time for us to pay attention to this ongoing systemic inequity. As families and districts navigate this very difficult time, state leaders should welcome innovative ideas to meet the needs of each district’s community and revisit (and eliminate) the long-standing inequities that make this pandemic more difficult for some districts and the families they serve–families like mine.
Nikki (Charisse) Montgomery, MA, MEd, GPAC
Executive Director, Madvocator Educational and Health Advocacy Training