As a student representative to the Newton School Committee, I spent hours listening to our elected officials discuss the re-opening of Newton Public Schools (NPS) this summer. I want to preface my opinions by saying that the School Committee was given a thankless task, and no decision could have satisfied everyone in the community. However, when given a job like this, I believe one cannot simply abandon certain members of our community. I think they made the right choice by choosing the fully-remote high school option.
When formulating my opinions, I thought about three main issues: social-emotional wellbeing, public health and safety and equity.
I believe that the social-emotional effects of returning to in-person learning have been overstated and exaggerated. While students would be in the same room, they would be subjected to safety guidelines that would make social interaction difficult. We cannot make statements like “in-person learning is better,” because we do not know what the new school environment would be like. Additionally, I think the potential for adverse effects of a loved one getting infected are far more damaging than the potential risks of a fully-remote school year. But, I am glad that the administration is putting in the effort to provide in-person opportunities, such as athletics and teacher meet-and-greets, to help care for students’ social and emotional wellbeing.
I also believe that with current protocols, it is dangerous to our community to reopen schools. My two key issues with the safety guidelines were the lack of testing and ventilation problems. Considering around 18% of COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic, testing is integral to preventing community spread. Additionally, I felt that NPS’s refusal to get an independent ventilation review was concerning.
Lastly, I believed that there were equity issues with the hybrid model. When asked questions about the Distance Learning Academy (DLA) in School Committee meetings, most answers were “we have to wait for the numbers” or “we’re still ironing out the details.” The district administration was unable to figure out who would teach classes and was unsure whether or not the DLA would offer the same breadth of classes as the hybrid model. Unfortunately, the lack of details and effort put into creating the DLA alienated members of our community, specifically those who are immunocompromised. If there was an equitable distance-learning option, my opinion may have been entirely different.
At the end of the day, I weighed the risks and the benefits, and I acknowledge the potential adverse effects of both models. With the pandemic, our facilities, our student body, our teacher’s union and our lack of testing, I believe that the risks of having school in-person far outweigh the benefits.