More than our physical health is being affected by this novel coronavirus. With the nation moving towards virtual living to continue social distancing, we are risking under-educating a generation. Children need the option to have an in-person education. There are lessons and experiences a student receives in the classroom that cannot be replicated via technology.
Distance learning is good, homeschooling is good, but not every student will succeed in those environments. Families need to have the option to send their child safely to school since a child only gets to experience the first grade once. My children are no longer school age, but my youngest is still in the classroom teaching middle schoolers.
It is critical to evaluate the risks of having a child return to in-person learning alongside the benefits. Besides the home, school ranks second in influencing a student’s well-being and health. Schools offer so much more than academic instruction. Many students rely on daily meals, a safe environment, one-on-one counseling services, development of social and emotional skills, and physical activity. These are things that cannot be dialed in.
Parents are rightfully concerned for the safety of their children and their risk for contracting this coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), school-aged children have a slight chance of contracting COVID-19. While researchers are still learning more about this new virus, the CDC reported in July that less than 7 percent of positive cases were for someone age 18 or under. The same study indicates that a child is more likely to be at risk of catching the flu.
When schools decided to go virtual in March, it highlighted the disparities within our broadband infrastructure. This posed a problem for students living in rural areas with limited internet access. Congress has recently prioritized broadband deployment, but these efforts must accelerate to provide adequate funding to expand broadband availability.
What happens if a child does not have access to in-person learning and no broadband connection? The lack of in-person instruction could lead to severe educational inequality. Families in low-income communities cannot afford to hire tutors or ensure each child has access to their own computer with reliable internet access to participate in virtual learning. Having at-home virtual learning also comes with the distractions of everyday life. Children need a focused environment to thrive.
Beyond the basic needs of these students, students with disabilities lack the tailored learning environment provided by special educators. It is impossible to virtually replicate the hands-on personal attention required to educate these children. Parents cannot turn into the special education teachers their child needs overnight to provide them with the occupational, physical, or speech therapy they would receive in the classroom. I understand this from my own firsthand experience since my oldest child is hearing impaired, and it was thanks to the teachers at the local public schools who changed her life by teaching her sign language. On top of that, virtual learning is especially difficult for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, have poor vision/blind, or may have another learning disorder.
Natural disasters have not previously rendered Congress immune from ensuring the education of the next generation. This pandemic should be no different. After Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of families, Congress created a new “Emergency Impact Aid” funding program for school districts that received these students. This program provided grants to school districts and private schools based on each displaced student’s enrollment for the 2005-2006 school year. These funds allowed students to receive a quality education in a new place during a time of crisis. Perhaps this program could be used to serve students who need in-person education this fall?
A more innovative approach is already included in the Senate’s HEALS Act through Education Freedom Scholarships. These scholarships allow families to fund their child’s private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other educational needs. The HEALS Act provides emergency funding for these scholarships as seed money and would give control of K-12 education back to parents. As a co-sponsor of the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, the House version of this concept, I believe expanding parental education opportunities is one of the best ways to improve in-person learning for students.
When it comes to whether or not to send students back to the classroom this fall, we must reject one-size-fits-all solutions and focus on ensuring that each student is able to receive the education that best fits their personal needs.
Burgess represents the 26th District of Texas and is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.