As I listened to a voicemail from a News 5 Cleveland reporter at 7:20 p.m. July 26, my stomach dropped. She wanted to know my thoughts on Akron Public Schools’ announcement at that evening’s school board meeting — which was still ongoing.
While I have written several columns critical of APS’s approach to education during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had no clue what the district just had announced. In fact, I hadn’t known to anticipate an announcement.
Once Joe Biden was inaugurated, I went on a much-needed news diet. Since Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination became ascendant in 2016, I took in the daily news like I was drinking from a fire hose.
I was not alone. During the Trump administration, unprecedented numbers of people from all political persuasions turned to their favorite news outlets. Subscriptions to the New York Times, for instance, doubled. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all experienced ratings bonanzas.
A news diet, however, is not the same as going news free. I still get daily newsletters from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But I don’t read them as closely, nor do I open as many embedded articles, as before.
And, unlike last year, during the six weeks this summer when my youngest children and I lived in a small camper in my parents’ driveway in Michigan, I didn’t stream WKSU while cooking dinner. Instead, I listened to music and kept blissfully not up to date.
Which is why my first thought when hearing from the reporter was, “Uh-oh, I’ve missed something important.”
During the past school year, I advocated for Akron Public Schools to reopen for in-person instruction in some measure, particularly for children with individualized education plans. In mid-March, they finally did, after an entire year of remote-only learning.
Now I was afraid the district was going to reverse course, as it had last July, and return to remote-only learning.
Luckily, my fear was off mark and I sighed with relief when I learned Akron schools will reopen for in-person instruction this fall with protocols in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Class sizes will be reduced to no more than 24 students — a decision any public school advocate can get behind. With any luck, this class-size cap will remain in effect after COVID-19 precautions are no longer necessary.
And, as with last spring, the district will not require students to wear uniforms this year. The benefits of uniforms in K-12 public schools is mostly anecdotal and several studies have shown uniforms have no effect on performance. Four of my five children have had to wear uniforms — none liked it and all now eschew collared T-shirts.
But the point that is perhaps most controversial, and probably why I was asked my thoughts by News 5, is that masks will be required of everyone inside APS buildings.
Yes, we are all tired of masks. And, yes, as a fully vaccinated person, I have enjoyed a dramatic reduction in mask wearing this summer.
However, I unequivocally support Akron Public Schools’ decision to require masks to be worn indoors.
The delta variant of COVID-19, which is far more transmissible than other variants, is spreading rapidly in the United States. And it is 2.5 times more likely to infect children than the original variant.
Currently, vaccination is not required of Akron Public Schools’ employees. In addition, we do not yet have a COVID vaccine for children under the age of 12. As soon as one becomes available, hopefully most eligible children will receive it. You can be certain that my youngest two will.
But until then, it is important to protect all children from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. This is especially true of children like my daughter Lyra who has Down syndrome. There is now a large body of evidence that people with intellectual disabilities are significantly more vulnerable to the effects, including death, of COVID-19.
And yet I want Lyra to attend school in person precisely because her intellectual disability made last year’s all-remote learning little better than a disaster.
The benefit of mask wearing in schools has been widely reported, including in this New York Times piece from July 29:
“A study of schools conducting full in-person instruction in Missouri, where mask use was required and 73 percent of schools enforced distances of three to six feet between students, found that secondary transmission was rare.”
Supporting our schools means being willing to honestly respond to decisions the district makes. Last year I was highly critical of how long Akron Public Schools remained 100% remote in light of the evidence that schools are low-transmission centers when appropriate safety protocols are followed.
Heading into the 2021-22 school year, I heartily applaud Akron Public Schools for making the wise decision to reopen for in-person instruction while putting in place all reasonable and responsible measures to ensure the safety of everyone in the buildings.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 8, 2021.