Thinking outside the box

As a proud parent of three students in Huntsville public schools, I am humbly requesting that the HISD administration think outside the box and announce a further revision to their plans for the 2020-2021 school year that involves both further postponing the fall term start date and beginning with several weeks of online-only instruction.

I realize that there are many competing pressures that factor into the decision about what to do this fall, many of which support the view that in-person school is necessary. I am intimately aware of the ways in which in-person schooling for children allows parents to better satisfy our work obligations. And in-person school allows for the provision of certain necessities for many students, such as food, shelter, safety, socialization, and so on. But it’s possible, given adjustments to the normal way of doing things, to meet these needs in other ways. So, it’s not that in-person school as such is a necessity, but rather, holding fixed various social structures and inequalities, school becomes a necessity because it is the only (or the best) avenue for providing various necessities.

And this brings me to my main point. The difficult decisions we face require thinking differently and letting go of seemingly fixed elements of our pre-pandemic status quo. Now, I fully realize that a discussion of the 2020-2021 school calendar is not the place for solving large-scale and deeply entrenched social inequalities. (That’s what November is for!) But we should take a hard look at what we can change and why. The school district provides food throughout the summer. Why can’t this need continue to be met in “summer-mode” for several more weeks, as it will be in other Texas districts? Similarly, why not seek ways to provide for some of the other necessities in a manner that doesn’t require in-person school for several more weeks? There’s nothing sacred about a mid-August start date, and beginning the term with remote instruction only need not, in itself, get in the way of providing for the needs of the HISD community.

Moreover, the district’s current plans go against the advice I have seen offered by experts, including doctors. Please forgive me any mistaken impressions, but the guidelines I have seen all acknowledge that a return to in-person school has many weighty benefits that may outweigh the risks and burdens that come with in-person school. But these benefits outweigh these burdens only given that the local area meets certain benchmarks for testing, test-positivity rate, hospitalizations, and so on. In other words, the experts all counsel against a return to in-person school in a context such as the one we find ourselves in now in Walker County, even while giving serious weight to the considerations that show in-person school to be a necessity for many. I think HISD should listen to those best positioned to provide informed guidance.

To be fair, the district’s plans do exhibit some creativity and sensitivity to the issues I’ve been highlighting. For example, I understand that school campuses would close for several days in the event of a confirmed positive case among those who attend. This is a good policy. But thinking through it carefully further underscores the wisdom of getting creative now. We can reasonably expect that there will be coronavirus cases and shutdowns in our schools at some point this fall. And students will still need food, shelter, and so on. Why would the district wait until people get infected to alter plans and get creative? It seems much wiser to preemptively disrupt the normal schedule and avoid unnecessary health and financial harm, perhaps even lives. Again, novel circumstances call for new ways of proceeding.

The takeaway strikes me as this: HISD’s current plan goes against the nuanced recommendations of experts and too closely adheres to the way things have always happened. There’s no reason we have to go on in anything like the normal way in this very abnormal time, and there are many reasons, given our situation, to alter our plans. HISD administrators should significantly push back the start date and begin classes online this fall. It’s the right thing to do, all things considered.

I would like to conclude with one last comment. I realize that nothing is set in stone and HISD may yet change its plans and follow other Texas districts in pushing back the return to school and go online for some time in the beginning of the year. This would be great news! I would urge the leadership to do two things. First, it should err on the side of caution and make the right call; and second, it should do so quickly. Many families, including my own, are waiting to make important decisions about employment, school enrollment, and so on, until we know for sure what the school year will look like. I get that there’s a great deal of uncertainty right now, and informed decision-making in this context is neither easy nor swift. But this just seems to me to favor a more cautious approach announced with speed. I’m not sure what there is to wait for. There is good reason to push the fall start date back for a few weeks and go online or the first few weeks of the fall term, and there is good reason to announce the intention to do so now. This is the prudent and right way to proceed in light of the needs of everyone in our community.

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin is an assistant professor of philosophy at Sam Houston State University.