The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA) and the School Superintendents Association (AASA) recently came together to support the safe return of in-person learning. They said, “We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online.”
I couldn’t agree more. In my capacity overseeing the nation’s child welfare system and early learning programs for vulnerable children and families—and having run the programs myself in communities—I know firsthand the importance of education, and caring adults, in the lives of families who are struggling. I am deeply concerned about the costs of not returning to in-person education, especially for young children and at-risk, primarily low-income, families.
There are many things we do not yet know about the impact of school closures on America’s vulnerable families. But, there are things that we do know.
We know that as long as schools remain closed to in-person education, vulnerable children will have access to fewer and less rich interactions with teachers and other caring adults.
We know that calls to report suspected child abuse and neglect have fallen precipitously.
We don’t know whether more children are suffering more abuse, but it is clear that when more caring eyes are on children, communities can help ensure that families have the supports they need for the safety and well-being of children.
We know that family relationships have been strained by lockdowns, quarantining at home, and in many cases, job loss. Low-income families often have the fewest supports to cope. Calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline are up 8 percent as of July, and tragic stories are too common. In-person education, particularly for elementary students, provides an environment conducive to learning, and vital relief to struggling parents.
We also know that, without in-person education, children can be more vulnerable to online predators. In the month following lockdowns, the National Weekly CyberTips received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children rose nearly 300 percent.
More broadly, quality education is a critical pathway out of poverty for vulnerable children, and work is a critical pathway out of poverty for parents. Most low-income families don’t have the resources to form teaching or learning “pods”. Many don’t have broadband or computers, much less jobs that permit remote work. School closures make both more difficult, and put efforts to close opportunity gaps further out of reach.
This is why President Trump and his administration is supporting efforts to appropriately open schools while keeping children, parents, and teachers safe and healthy.
Of course, there are risks that can and should be managed and mitigated. But the costs of remaining out of school for our nation’s young and disadvantaged children are certainly and unacceptably high.
I am convinced that people at federal, state, local, and community levels, when focused on the interests of America’s most vulnerable families, can innovate and find a way to re-open safely and serve children who need it most.
Take The Y of Atlanta, an early learning program that provides services to Head Start and Early Head Start children as well as children enrolled in Georgia’s Pre-K program, illustrates this attitude. They asked, “How do we stay open?” The Y implemented creative solutions, like staggered times for safe and easy drop off and pick up of children, reassigning staff to support smaller groups in-person, and redesigning instruction that more easily connects parents to the entire process. It has been open for in-person services for essential workers children since March 30th and has also welcomed back its Head Start and Early Head Start children.
Many across the country are working diligently on this very issue. As we adapt to this evolving situation, we must put the interests of our most vulnerable first. Together with educators, families, and children, we can continue to develop safe, effective and helpful strategies that get children back to school safely. Few challenges we face are more important for vulnerable families than this one.
— Lynn A. Johnson is the assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families housed within the Department of Health and Human Services
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