K-12 schools nationwide were forced to close in the spring when so much was unknown about COVID-19. Getting kids back into classrooms has been a primary goal ever since. Scientists’ understanding of the virus has grown exponentially in the last nine months. Likewise, we’ve all learned together how to mitigate transmission through simple precautions like face coverings, physical distancing, sanitizing and hand-washing.

School districts have shown that a return to classrooms is possible using a structured, thoughtful process. That’s why Pullman Public Schools made the right decision to begin bringing students back in a phased reopening starting in January.

The plan will begin with the youngest students returning to class in small groups on alternating days. Higher grades will be brought back and more in-person days added as COVID activity allows, in consultation with the Whitman County Department of Health. The school district will continue providing an online-only option for families who prefer that.

The abrupt shift to distance learning last spring was necessary, but not without consequences. Isolation has taken a toll on students’ mental health and emotional well-being. Food insecurity stalks families who used to rely on school to provide two balanced meals a day for their children. The situation for parents who are trying their best to help their children stay on task and learn while also working full-time is beyond challenging.

And the truth is, it’s most challenging for women, who have left the workforce in much larger numbers than men because of childcare issues. Of note for our region, studies have shown that scholarly production by women in academia has fallen compared to male academics during the pandemic.

Distance learning makes existing disparities worse. Poor children and children of color are less likely to have adequate internet or devices for learning at home and are more likely to have parents whose essential jobs don’t allow them to work remotely. Even if all of this weren’t the case, research shows that on average, children learn better face-to-face than they do online. That’s particularly true of students who were struggling before the pandemic.

Without a return to classrooms, kids could face long-term, negative effects including a higher dropout rate and lower lifetime earnings. For all of these reasons and more, the Pullman Community COVID-19 Leadership Collaborative supports Pullman Public Schools’ plan to return to face-to-face learning. Of course there will be challenges, but what hasn’t been challenging this year?

We trust Superintendent Bob Maxwell, teachers and support staff to bring back students slowly and safely. It’s in our children’s best interest.

This opinion piece was signed and submitted by: Scott Adams, CEO, Pullman Regional Hospital; Marie Dymkoski, executive director, Pullman Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Stephanie Fosback, Palouse Medical; Gary Jenkins, police chief for the city of Pullman; Glenn Johnson, mayor, city of Pullman; Kirk Schulz, president, Washington State University; Ed Schweitzer, president and chief technology officer, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories; Chris Skidmore, interim public health director, Whitman County Public Health; and Dr. Ed Tingstad, Inland Orthopedic Surgery.

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