Debating school openings has become freighted by politics—both Party and union politics. Too bad. A strong nation would push back hard against the politicization of public education and health. 

President Trump gets a large measure of the blame. He is looking for topical issues that provide wedge potential. Fear of the pandemic and his erratic leadership have provided a wedge issue to his opponents and he is using education to counter-attack. 

So several weeks ago in all available media he said schools should open this fall. He even threatened to deny aid to those that did not. Within the news cycle the teacher’s union took him on and well, you know the rest of the story.

Earlier this week I participated in a Zoom teaching lesson. The beneficiaries were young children who were struggling up the ladder of grade level reading. The lesson was one-on-one. The school room was often the living room couch and the students were almost all fidgety—unfocused.

The best session, and I watched five, was the one where the student’s mother could be heard in the background prompting her child. The student was a young girl and she had the benefit of READ Alliance’s proven instruction method that had been recast for the virtual medium. But the student’s greatest advantage came not from the screen, which was occupied by both a monitoring teacher and tutor, but from her mother’s active coaching.

The students I watched were struggling to begin with and the virtual format added to the struggles. I am not for a minute criticizing the effort, but if anybody believes that children, who are at a crucial moment of learning, can get what they need from the virtual world, think again.

High-achieving students receive rewards. They are chosen for honor societies, they get special recognition at events and when they graduate from High School they are rewarded with a mailbox full of college offers and often scholarships. 

We need to offer special back-to-school privileges to children that most need in-person instruction. It would be folly for me to suggest what the threshold for a back-to-school opportunity should be, but there are plenty of specialists to help define the conditions. I do think, however, it is safe to say that with a relatively small population of students, protection from the virus can be assured. 

Teachers are not dispensable. They are as essential as health care workers. Indeed, in some ways that is exactly what they are as they attend to the future health of children. 

Parents, at the most essential moments in their children’s lives, make decisions. Unfortunately America’s public schools have been losing students for years. Those parents who can afford it or who are able to borrow money often send their children to private schools. Many go to more affordable church schools. A growing number of parents prefer homeschooling.

Public school leadership must face the reality that many parents are choosing other options. And they must, in particular, not let down the parents and children who have no other options. Public health and well-educated students are indivisible.