Chastity Milligan: Schools need to reopen for in-person classes — virtual education a poor substitute

We cannot postpone life and learning indefinitely.

An open letter to state officials and school policymakers in my home state of New Jersey:

The people of New Jersey are cooperating to fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic by wearing masks and social distancing, often erring on the side of caution and being extremely prudent with measures such as quarantining when coming from a "hot spot." 

It only stands to reason that New Jersey is now more than ready to move on and continue life despite the virus. A major part of this progress is the safe return back to in-person school attendance in September.

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Gov. Phil Murphy said July 27 that “every education expert we’ve spoken to over the past few months has confirmed that in-person education is critical and that remote learning is only an acceptable substitute when absolutely necessary.”

The governor added: “If done safely, I believe we must try to include at least an aspect of in-person education for our children this fall.” 

Those who say we are not ready to open schools are minimizing and undervaluing all we have sacrificed and are minimizing all the progress we have worked so hard to achieve.

Child care centers, camps and summer school programs (in many instances in an indoor setting) have also been reopened in some communities. Other indoor reopenings include arcades, casinos and shopping malls.

Given this, it’s preposterous that we would not reopen schools. Keep in mind that 52 percent of New Jersey property taxes go toward the school system.

The New Jersey Constitution provides that all children are entitled to a "thorough and efficient" education. It flies in the face of reason to suggest that hours in front of a screen provide either of those things.

In fact, the virtual environment is detrimental to our children's education and is in no way representative of the fine public education New Jersey is known for. Studies have found that online learning is far less effective than in-person instruction, especially for elementary-age and special-needs children.

Middle and high schoolers have felt the negative effects of school closures last spring; during virtual learning some experienced increases of depression, anxiety and social isolation. It is undisputed that their emotional health suffered.

Webster's Dictionary describes the word “virtual” as "almost or nearly as described." This is the perfect analogy to any education that is not done live, in a classroom. It is "almost" the education our children are entitled to, but almost is not good enough.

It is not the education we owe our children, but rather, an inferior substitute. This is not the fault of anyone, but the nature of virtual learning. It simply cannot be done the same way as in-class instruction. No matter what improvements or money are thrown at it, it cannot be improved to replicate classroom instruction.

Virtual education will always be done on a screen, and that is simply not how our children learn. There is no one-on-one element, no instant feedback and corrections for students, and less devotion from students. We cannot continue in this way; children are literally “clicking” through the motions without thought or proper assessment.

Has a child ever bounded down the stairs, excited for a day of screen time and virtual learning with the same zeal he or she has when boarding the bus for school? In fact, it has been consistently proven that too much screen time limits our children's ability to learn. The children were simply apathetic to virtual learning — it was not school to them, it was a video that could be ignored or stopped at any time.

It would be remiss not to mention that a giant takeaway from the pandemic is that our children understand the severity of the pandemic and their role in it. They have been taught how to wear masks, wash their hands more frequently, and keep their distance. They have been doing it for months and will continue to do so, especially in school.

Ask school-age children if they want to go back to school and the answer is an overwhelming “YES!” They don't want to lose another precious moment of valuable education, of years they can never repeat and memories that cannot be replaced.

Children know that virtual education isn't the education owed to them. They can feel it. They do not have the same enthusiasm and drive that comes with going into a classroom, getting the right answer, reading in front of the class for the first time, and other learning experiences.

The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is that our children miss and need in-person school. Educators and parents alike often tell our children and students not to say "I can't." We tell them that just about anything can be achieved with persistence and commitment. Let's not make them think we "can't" return to the in-person school environment they all require.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that children go back to school for in-person learning whenever possible. Children are far less likely than adults to become severely ill from the virus.

Many parents that have taken their children to the doctor in the past few months will tell you that their pediatrician also calls for the return to in-person school whenever possible.

It has been argued that guidelines for protecting us against the coronavirus are untested and cannot guarantee that no one will be sick. The same can be said for life. There are no guarantees in any situation.

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Some risk is inherent in most activities and accepted because the risk is outweighed by the benefits or rewards. Teachers have begun to question reopenings — they are speculating that children cannot maintain distance or adhere to new protocols. But we cannot keep taking away hours from the school day without harming the educational progress of students.

In fact, we should be accelerating learning and maximizing in-school time, with an emphasis on core subjects. We need to get back up to speed and we cannot waste precious moments waiting for something that may or may not happen.

In states such as New Jersey the time to resume in-person instruction in schools is now. We cannot make excuses and base decisions on fear.

There are not even any guarantees that when a coronavirus vaccine is developed it will be 100 percent effective (ask anybody who ever contracted the flu, even after getting a flu shot). In fact, students and teachers have visited many non-sterile environments over the summer and all have embraced the reassuring return of some normalcy. Let’s not grind that progress to a screeching halt.

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The guidelines released by the Education Department allow creativity for each building and district. Many school plans that have been released go above and beyond the minimum requirements. In fact, it can be argued our schools will never be safer or cleaner than they will be with these new precautions.

Every school year begins with its share of anxieties. This year will be no different. Our wonderful teachers have proven time and time again how they can face and overcome challenges.

Many people thought life would never be the same after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or after horrific school shootings that tragically claimed the lives of students and school staff. But our educational system forged ahead with new thinking and showed a flexibility to adapt.

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The same can be done now. It is important to teach our children how to approach and overcome obstacles, and how many people working together can achieve a common goal. It is very possible that the coronavirus becomes a part of our lives and something we have to live with until a vaccine and effective treatments can eradicate COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

We cannot postpone life and learning indefinitely. Parents, children, and teachers alike will make sacrifices to achieve an in-school environment, but we can do it. And it's worth it.