Return to school only when it’s safe

The Beacon Staff

Wilson’s reopening is a complicated and multifaceted issue. Although virtual learning is difficult for many families, returning to school is simply unsafe. DC has been doing a decent job controlling COVID-19 cases during the last couple of months—with exceptions (including the White House staff superspreader)—but the relatively low infection rate cannot be taken for granted. In a school as large as ours, with students coming from all over DC, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which it would be safe to return to school at full capacity. As DCPS begins to allow some schools to go back, it is of the utmost importance to consider the disastrous consequences Wilson’s reopening might have on public health, as students, teachers, administrators, and the families of anyone who enters the building are put at risk.    

Returning to schools too early has the potential to endanger thousands of students, faculty, and families. With so many factors that are out of our control, it’s hard to predict if Wilson will be able to social distance in a way that will ensure everyone’s safety. Even if certain protocols are put in place to minimize interactions and proximity with peers, it is somewhat unrealistic that every Wilson student will follow them. 

For many students, commuting to school requires some degree of public transportation—something DCPS cannot regulate. Those who take the bus or metro will be compromising their health, exposing themselves to strangers in environments where mask etiquette is spotty and bus drivers sometimes ignore capacity limits. 

Lunch raises another crucial safety concern. It is impossible to eat and drink while wearing a mask, thus increasing the likelihood of transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said that, “people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation.” Even though the atrium is large and has adequate ventilation, memories of this crowded, boisterous location during lunch hour don’t bode well for healthy eating during a pandemic. 

Younger people are less likely to be affected by COVID, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune or can’t spread it. According to the CDC, “COVID-19 is less severe in children than it is in adults, but children can still play a role in transmission.” This means students would be putting their families and teachers at risk by returning to school. Not to mention that there are also certain anomalies: countless children with unknown underlying health conditions or even none at all have died at the hands of this pandemic. The New York Times shared data showing that the death rate among kids rose 229 percent from May 20 through August 21st across The United States.

Despite dreading time away from the classroom, Wilson’s teachers have expressed unwillingness to go back until it is entirely safe. The Wilson Chapter of The Washington Teacher’s Union is in unanimous agreement that they do not want to return to the building until science supports such a decision. With teachers being some of the most valuable members of our community, it is our responsibility to respect their lives and their demands. 

The appeal of returning to a traditional learning environment is that it involves in-person interaction and communication. However, social distancing would significantly stunt any of these social interactions, whether they be group projects or eating lunch side-by-side with a friend. 

Despite some obvious road bumps, DCPS should be commended for this year’s relatively smooth start to virtual learning—a transition to which students are still getting adjusted. Online learning has done a sufficient enough job that it’s unnecessary to put student and teacher safety at risk for in-person school.  

Located in a wealthy neighborhood and the recipient of active financial support, the Wilson community is extremely privileged. When considering plans to reopen, it’s vital to look beyond the scope of Wilson and at the District as a whole. Many students come from outside of Wilson’s neighborhood, and as the virus disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities, returning to the classroom would put BIPOC students and staff at the most harm.

The glaring risks posed by in-person learning during a global pandemic make clear that such plans are infeasible. Although the Chancellor has announced high schools will not return to in-person instruction until at least February 1, DCPS should be held to constant scrutiny to ensure they do not rush the transition to in-person learning. Rather than searching for ways to push students and teachers back in the classroom, DCPS should focus their energy on improving the equity and efficiency of distance learning. They should be providing all students with functioning laptops and broadband internet, promoting meal pick-up sites, and supporting teachers as they navigate through this new mode of teaching. These measures are necessary in ensuring that students receive a quality education while they wait to return to schools only when it is safe—however long that may take.