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Together, can we rescue the COVID generation?

The Washington Post recently wrote about the devastating impact the pandemic is having on our students’ academic performance.

Citing a report put out by one of the nation’s largest school districts, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the article states, “between the last academic year and this one, the percentage of middle school and high school students earning F’s in at least two classes jumped by 83%: from 6% to 11%. By the end of the first quarter of 2020-2021, nearly 10,000 Fairfax students had scored F’s in two or more classes — an increase of more than 4,300 students as compared with the group who received F’s by the same time last year.”

Independent School District in Houston and St. Paul Public Schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, are also reporting that about 40% of their students are failing at least two classes.

Anecdotally, as an educator at South Medford High School, I can say our students are no different. Our most vulnerable students — those with learning disabilities, in poverty and who speak English as a second language — are suffering the most.

In no way is this due to a lack of effort. Educators are working harder than ever. Parents are stressed and pushing themselves to exhaustion. Our students are desperate to be successful, make connections with teachers and to be with friends.

Most solutions we are hearing about are related to making grades easier, giving students more time and allowing students a “do-over.” These ideas will make report cards look better but they won’t help improve the well-being of our students.

So, what can we do? While recognizing that this pandemic will end eventually, we need to act now. In practice, we must stop defining the health of our society as the absence of COVID without diminishing the seriousness of the disease, and we need to prioritize getting students back to school.

The World Health Organization defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition of health should drive Gov. Kate Brown’s response to the pandemic. Will she allow our school districts to implement plans that prioritize safety and in-person attendance? This definition of health should bring school district and union leaders together to reimagine in-person school as we know it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said, “The default position should be to try as best as possible within reason to keep the children in school or to get them back to school. If you look at the data, the spread among children and from children is not really very big at all. Not like one would have suspected so let’s try to get the children back. The best way to ensure the safety of the children in school is to get the community level of spread low so if you mitigate the things that you know that are causing spread in a very profound way and robust way (and) bring that down, you will then indirectly protect the children in the school.”

Let’s be flexible and creative to bring our students back. District and union leadership must partner to accommodate staff members with underlying health conditions while flexibly finding temporary solutions outside of the contract.

For example, traditionally at South Medford students attend from 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., but it doesn’t have to be. One idea is to divide our student body into four groups and have each group attend school every other morning or afternoon. This approach would significantly reduce the number of students in our classrooms and in each building at a time. Half of our schools’ staff could work mornings, and half could work in the afternoons, further reducing the number of people on site.

Creating a schedule for 2,000 students while considering transportation, food services and sanitation procedures between cohorts quickly creates a monumental coordination effort. There are other potential solutions as well, and certainly all will require sacrifice and flexibility from everyone.

Can anyone guarantee students and staff won’t get COVID? No. Can we do a better job of addressing the overall well-being of our children and youth while mitigating the risks associated with not only their (and our) physical health but their mental and social health as well? Yes. Can we come together and rescue the COVID generation? Yes!

Josh Wallace has been a teacher since 2003 and has taught Spanish at South Medford High School since 2005.