Back to school?

August 19th, 2020

How we got here 

The public controversy and private anguish about whether schools should reopen this fall, and how they should proceed if they do, are ultimately the result of failures in both leadership and policy. There has never been a national strategy for testing, contact tracing or isolating positive cases. There has been no aid to help schools safely reopen or to enhance online learning. There has been no aid for states to protect their budgets against steep drops in tax revenue from shuttered businesses. There was little, if any, discussion about schools when states started lifting restrictions on high-risk activities in May and June, and many state and local governments, strapped for cash, likely felt they had no choice but to reopen, thus allowing cases to rise again sharply as school loomed for millions of children. 

That is how we got to this point, left arguing over trade-offs between health and education, between the safety of children and teachers and the childcare needs of employed parents. Parents, teachers and communities around the country are left to choose from among various bad options. Do we find a way to keep children home while the virus remains uncontrolled? Do we send children to school despite the risks? No matter what choice we make, we will have to navigate the consequences for years to come.

The effects on children 

For many children, March involved a sudden and less than smooth transition to online learning. Many households lacked the high-speed internet access needed for streaming classes and content. Teachers and families alike struggled to make schooling effective from home. Distance learning seemed likely to exacerbate educational inequalities. 

For most elementary and secondary students, online classes are less effective than in-person ones. Students miss out on ordinary socialization with peers and adults, as well as extracurricular sports and clubs. Schools are also relied upon to serve necessary functions besides education. Many children rely on school lunches for basic nutrition and school nurses for urgent care. Schools detect and report many cases of child abuse that otherwise would not be found. 

At the same time, transmission of the virus in schools seems very difficult to contain, even with safety measures in place. Despite initially hopeful reports that children weren’t catching or transmitting the virus in large numbers, there is ample indication that they can and do, sometimes with devastating effects. According to a New York Times compilation of epidemiological data, a school like the one my children attend should expect to have about five active infections when they open in August. That could quickly become many more. Any school planning to resume full in-person instruction also needs a plan for how to communicate about positive cases and when to close a classroom or a whole building if it becomes necessary. 

The effects on parents 

School closures have taken a considerable toll on parents, too. Few of us are equipped to manage our children’s education alongside our own work. The pandemic has been especially damaging to the work lives of mothers, who have had to endure disproportionately higher job losses while also managing a larger share of childcare. Apart from everything else schools are asked to do, they provide supervised environments for children while many parents work. 

It is, therefore, unsurprising that school reopening has been discussed explicitly in terms of the needs of the labor market. Some countries (Denmark, for instance) have covered a large portion of wages and salaries so workers could stay home without destroying businesses. In the U.S., people who can’t work from home are much more likely to be required to go to work. Despite concerns about the safety of their children returning to school, many parents will have no choice but to send them. 

This dilemma, once again, is the result of specific policy decisions. As early as April, many local, state and federal leaders prioritized reopening businesses before the virus was fully suppressed rather than paying to keep businesses and households afloat during the closures. Indoor spaces like bars and restaurants, where people spend extended periods of time without masks, were opened and their staff required to return, driving a new surge in infections and in some places a reimposition of restrictions. 

The effects on teachers 

The term “essential worker” became widespread early in the pandemic. The people who could, and often had to, keep going to work through the initial outbreak included medical professionals and first responders, but also grocery-store and other retail workers, meat processing workers and other relatively low-wage employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, infections and deaths were heavily concentrated among “essential workers” (who are disproportionately low-income and people of color) in the early part of the outbreak. 

Teachers are a different sort of “essential worker.” They tend to be college or graduate-school educated and many of them are covered by union-negotiated contracts on pay, hours and working conditions. Teachers are also expressing serious concerns about returning to schools amidst an uncontrolled pandemic. One national union promised to support local strikes if districts don’t take adequate safety precautions like requiring masks or ventilating classrooms. 

However, not everyone has been sympathetic. “Has any other essential industry put up a fight about working like teachers have?” one writer asked on Twitter. “I never saw groups of doctors, nurses, meat packers, truckers, grocery store workers stand up and say they won’t work until there’s a vaccine and to hell with our society.” Of course, there have been calls for action by these workers, along with entirely just demands for safety measures. Meat packing workers, for instance, have been infected — and died — at a shocking rate. It is all too easy to turn this tragedy on its head and castigate a new group of frontline workers for demanding more safety. 

The daily grind of the pandemic can make it emotionally easier, and practically more plausible, to ask not for safety, but for terrifying risks to be borne by more. Children, parents and teachers all make sacrifices for the sake of education. The question we have to answer as a society is whether they deserve better options than the ones we’ve forced upon them. 


How other countries are coping 

Other countries have resumed in-person education with varying levels of success. After an apparently successful campaign to suppress the virus, Israel’s schools opened in May. Two weeks later, however, new outbreaks erupted forcing some schools to close again. Denmark, on the other hand, has successfully reopened schools with a strategy of teaching students in “bubbles” of 12 that move together throughout the day, maintaining physical distance, and frequent hand-washing. Masks have not featured in Denmark’s school plans. In Taiwan, by contrast, mask usage is universal and mandatory except for lunch periods, when plastic barriers around each student’s desk may be used instead. Taiwan, hit hard by the SARS outbreak in 2003, moved quickly and effectively to suppress the new coronavirus and has had relatively few cases and very few deaths. 

Testing for the virus may also play a critical role in allowing schools to function. “Pooled” testing, where multiple samples are combined in one test to find the presence of the virus among any of them, could help schools learn quickly whether the virus is present in a classroom or campus. Newer rapid testing may allow better surveillance of the virus before it spreads in schools. 

One complicating factor for any plan is the uncontrolled spread of the virus in society at large. With tens of thousands of confirmed cases each day, keeping schools safe for students and workers will be an ongoing challenge.

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