The return of Chippewa Falls students to classrooms is a good step, and one other school districts should seriously consider following.
The end of classes last spring and the exceptional caution that accompanied the beginning of the current academic year were not misplaced. In the former case it was a prudent step given how little was known about the virus. The latter made sense given that we had no experience with holding primary and secondary school classes during this pandemic.
When the fall began there were predictions of explosive growth in the number of COVID cases and that they would be linked to schools reopening. There was, in fact, a noticeable rise in cases. But it was concentrated among people between the age of 18-24. The rise was collegiate, not in primary or secondary schools.
Since that wave ebbed in late September, those younger than 24 have consistently been among the lowest age cohorts for new COVID cases in Wisconsin. Both the case rate and raw number of new cases for those younger than 18 have been strikingly lower than other ages.
As of Wednesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services listed 57,282 cases total among state residents younger than age 18. The next-lowest group covers between 55 and 64 years of age, and it’s at nearly 71,000. To put it simply, there has been no major outbreak among the youth of our state.
That’s different from saying there have been few cases, or that those who contract COVID in the youngest age cohorts are free from any risk. But the weight of evidence clearly shows primary and secondary schools have not been the kind of mass transmission factories experts feared.
The case for getting students back to class also includes the ongoing difficulties associated with remote classes. While the online options have proven a valuable bridge during this time, there are few who would genuinely argue they are a true substitute for in-class learning. The experiences with online classes for many reveal just how underrated the classroom skills of teachers are and how difficult it is to facilitate learning.
It isn’t surprising that teachers have had, as a rule, a more difficult time with online classes. While future college curricula may well include the lessons learned in the past year for prospective teachers, neither technology nor imagination allowed for such training for the vast majority of those now at the head of the nation’s classrooms. Few thought a pandemic of this scale likely and, even if colleges had, the technology was far from able to cope until the last couple years.
Education is, above all, the pursuit of knowledge. It is the layering of experience and information atop that which has been gained previously, in an effort to better prepare people to engage with the world.
Education is not static, though. It is flexible. Few disciplines, if any, rely on the same thoughts and techniques used a century ago. Science and math have expanded their horizons. History is open to new interpretations. The literary canon has changed, as have the ways people interact with great works.
It is time for education to show that flexibility again. Steps taken earlier in the pandemic relied on what knowledge had accumulated to that time. Steps we take now must rely on what we have learned since. And what we have learned indicates that students being in the classroom, with appropriate precautions in place, do not appear to be the kind of lethal incubators for this pandemic that we feared.
We have learned that online classes, while valuable as an emergency measure, have not been able to fully replicate the depth of learning possible in the classroom. The very nature of this pandemic, touching as it has virtually everyone, means that all students have faced these challenges. The nature of youth, though, is adaptability, and we have confidence they will rebound.
The best opportunity for them to begin doing so is in the classroom. It is time to make a decision borne of evidence, and return Chippewa Valley students to their schools.