The stakes, and the pressure to make the right decision, are huge.
As U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, state School Superintendent Richard Woods, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and many other leaders and organizations have observed, online school last spring was generally inadequate.
Many areas lack high-speed internet access. And even for students with access, schools were mostly unable to track what they learned or even whether they logged in. Schools also offer a safety net, especially for poorer students, providing food, health care, counseling and access to social services. Teachers can provide a crucial link to authorities for children suffering from abuse at home.
Infectious diseases experts say it’s understandable that people are having a hard time weighing all that against the largely invisible risk of COVID-19.
“The best indicator would be one that we do not have,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, an epidemiology professor at Georgia State University.
He said the state and the rest of the country need “ongoing surveillance” to better gauge the local risk of the virus. By that, the Harvard-trained infectious diseases expert means a massive increase in testing with results broken out by demographic groups and by location.
“Because we don’t have that surveillance in place, we’re fumbling around,” he said. “Although we don’t have the data that we really need, the data we do have suggests it would be better not to open at this point.”
That is not what parents want to hear, but it is what many of them fear.
Miranda Roberts, whose son will be in eighth grade this fall, was traumatized by online learning last spring. If her school system two hours southeast of Atlanta does that again, she said, “I might lose my mind; there is not enough wine in the state of Georgia.”
Although she has an autoimmune disorder that makes exposure to the coronavirus more dangerous for her, she is not choosing the online option that Baldwin County Public Schools is offering. Roberts works as a residential property manager and said her son, 13, won’t apply himself online without someone at home to push him.
“So I’m stuck with sending my son to school,” she said. “I don’t want to.”
Back in northeast Georgia, Jennifer Taylor thinks the Habersham school district’s online option is inadequate, but she is choosing it anyway. One of her two teenagers has asthma. The occupational therapist routinely wears a mask and other protective gear when she visits patients at home. She doesn’t trust the data the district has used to say it is safe to reopen, in part because a local hospital has warned that infections are rising fast.
“I think our numbers can be manipulated however they need to be to make them say whatever,” she said. “It’s obviously here.”