Back to School

When schools began closing in March, everyone said it was just for a few weeks. The logic was simple: The virus’ incubation time was two weeks or so; if we all just stayed home through one incubation cycle, everyone already infected would show symptoms, they’d go into quarantine, and the rest of us could get back to our normal lives. When things didn’t go that way, schools were closed for a little longer, and then for the rest of the year. Still, few imagined that it wouldn’t be safe to go back in the fall.

Now it’s mid-July, time (or maybe past time) to start making commitments for the 2020-2021 school year. The virus’ widely anticipated summer lull never arrived. And although the world’s well-governed countries have been getting their epidemics under control, the United States has not been well governed for some while. The experts at the CDC established sensible standards for restarting normal life in stages, but our president pushed the states to ignore them, encouraging lawsuits and even armed protests against governors who tried to follow them. As a result, Covid-19 is still spreading like wildfire in all but a handful of states.

So what do we do with schools in the fall? Several fundamental facts about schools, children, and the virus point in different directions.

  • As a group, compared to the general population, children are less vulnerable to the most serious consequences of Covid-19. The odds that your child will die from catching it at school may not be zero, but they are very low. At the same time, the long-term consequences of a “mild” case are still not well understood.
  • Leaving schools closed also has risks and costs, especially for children whose home life is stressed in some way. Some children live in homes with large indoor and outdoor play spaces, robust internet connections, and extensive book collections; their parents may also work at home and may be well equipped to supervise online learning. Some other children not only lack those advantages, but live in dangerous or abusive homes; before Covid, school was the safest part of their day.
  • Traditional classrooms share a feature that has made meat-processing plants and prisons such fertile ground for Covid-19 to spread: “prolonged close proximity to other[s]”. Worse, strict protocols of masking and social distancing will be hard to enforce in schools; violating them provides an easy way for difficult students to disrupt the classroom.
  • Schools link households that would otherwise have little contact. With schools open, the community becomes a denser network that is easier for the virus to traverse. (For some reason, elementary schools have not been implicated in major outbreaks, but schools for older children have.)
  • Children are not the only ones in the classroom. Many teachers are near retirement age, or have other Covid-19 risk factors. Is it age discrimination, or a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, to require teachers in high-risk categories to either endanger themselves or quit? Will teachers unions agree to open schools under conditions that are unsafe for many of their members?

And we are once again going through the familiar pattern: The CDC has established guidelines for opening schools safely, but the president and his education secretary are pushing communities not to follow them, to the point of threatening their federal funding. [1]

we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open. And it’s very important. It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.

The CDC’s advice includes closing schools for extended periods if there is “substantial community transmission” of the virus, and making major adjustments (no field trips, desks six feet apart, students wear masks, staggered scheduling, …) when there is “minimal to moderate community transmission”. The President has pronounced those measures “impractical“, but has offered no alternative plan beyond just opening the school doors and letting the epidemic run its course.

Worse, he has turned school reopening into a test of loyalty. If you’re on his side, you support his alternate reality, where the virus surge is just an artifact of overtesting, 99% of cases are “totally harmless“, and there’s no reason not to fully open all parts of the economy, including the schools — unless, of course, you’re a Democrat trying to hurt his re-election chances.

Corrupt Joe Biden and the Democrats don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons! They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it! [2]

New York City. A number of school districts have already announced their own plans for the fall. New York City, for example, intends to have students physically present only two or three days a week, cutting the number present on any given day in half. The school-system chancellor said:

We know that we cannot maintain proper physical distancing and have 100% of our students in school buildings five days a week. It’s just geographically, physically not possible. Health and safety requires us to have fewer students in the building at the same time.

This is not nearly good enough for the Trump administration, which wants five full days a week. NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg offers a liberal parent’s view: She agrees, up to a point.

I want schools to open full-time at least as much as Trump does. On Wednesday, New York City announced its plan to send kids back to school part time, and it is a calamity. To accommodate C.D.C. guidelines calling for six feet of distance between desks, students will be able to go to school only one to three days a week. It is not yet clear if schools will be able to ensure that siblings will attend on the same days. Working parents could end up needing full-time child care indefinitely, and there are, as yet, no plans to provide it publicly. …

So far, the results of so-called “remote learning” — a term I dislike, since it presumes that learning is happening — have been terrible for students, especially disadvantaged ones. The fallout for many parents’ financial prospects and mental health is catastrophic. And part-time schooling is likely to significantly amplify educational inequalities that are already enormous. As those who can afford it hire private teachers and tutors, we are rapidly heading toward a system of neo-governesses in which basic schooling becomes a luxury good unattainable for many people outside the 1 percent.

But she also recognizes that Trump’s politicization of the argument has made any rational discussion of reopening plans much harder:

Trump’s interference means that now no departure from the current C.D.C. guidelines will be seen as credible outside of MAGAland. “The recklessness has made people distrust anything that they say because they have downplayed the virus from the beginning,” said [American Federation of Teachers President Randi] Weingarten. … This is a president with negative credibility. The more Trump demands that schools open, the more people who’ve paid close attention to him will fear they all must remain closed.

Florida. As if to prove the point that we should do the opposite of whatever Trump urges, there’s Florida. New York was once the worst-hit state in the nation, but has been doing comparatively well lately. Florida is one of the states currently experiencing the worst outbreaks, but Education Commissioner Richard Corcora is insisting on a full reopening of the state’s schools.

Under the emergency order, all public schools will be required to reopen in August for at least five days a week and to provide the full array of services required by law, including in-person instruction and services for students with special needs.

Governor Ron DeSantis, who got the state into its current mess by following Trump’s advice on early reopening of businesses and bars, compares schools to big box stores.

I’m confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools.

This silly pronouncement has received the widespread disrespect it so richly deserves. California Congressman Ted Lieu’s response was one of many:

Did I somehow miss the true Home Depot experience? I didn’t realize Home Depot packed 35 people together in a room for 6 hours a day.

Similarly silly was this Trump tweet:

In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!

Yes, let’s compare Florida and Denmark. Florida has a little less than four times the population of Denmark. But in Covid-19’s entire history, Denmark has had 13,000 cases. Florida found 15,000 new cases yesterday. Denmark had 159 new cases in the last week; Florida over 69,000. Safely opening schools in Denmark is a completely different problem than opening them in Florida.

It is absolutely insane for Florida schools to be planning to open five days a week. If this hadn’t become a Trump-loyalty issue, no one would support doing it.

What at least one teacher thinks. If there’s one blog you ought to be reading right now that you’re probably not, I’d say it’s Teacher Life, written by Mrs. Teacher Life. Start with “Nobody Asked Me: A Teacher’s Opinion on School Reopening“, where you’ll find this kind of insight:

Let’s discuss hand washing. If an average class size of kindergartners is 25, then it would take 8.3 minutes for them each to wash their hands for 20 seconds- not too bad you might think. That’s doable- let’s reopen! Unfortunately that does not account for transition time between students at the sink, the student who plays in the bubbles, or splashes another student, or cuts in line, or has to be provided moral support to flush the toilet, because they are scared. It doesn’t account for the fact that only a few students will be allowed in the bathroom at a time and the teacher must monitor whose turn it is to enter and exit the bathroom, and control the hallway behavior, and send the student who just coughed to the “quarantine room” that doesn’t exist BECAUSE THERE ARE NO EXTRA ROOMS. Where are the students in hallway waiting? In line? All together? Six feet apart? No wait, three feet is okay now. Either way, 25 children standing three feet apart is a line over 75 feet long. Who is monitoring this line? Keeping them quiet, reminding them to keep their hands to themselves?

When you take a classroom-level view, you start to see a strange disconnect: Getting schools open is somehow both a top priority and barely an afterthought. On the one hand, it’s absolutely essential, because the economy can’t get back to normal (and the President can’t get re-elected) until parents can go back to work without leaving unsupervised children at home. But on the other hand, if it were actually that important, you’d think some roomful of geniuses would have been convened long ago to work out

  • exactly what conditions need to hold in our communities for it to be safe to reopen schools
  • how we’re going to achieve those conditions (i.e., do we really need to re-open the bars?)
  • how schools are going to function when they do reopen
  • what additional resources they need to function that way.

So, for example, what about that quarantine room Mrs. Teacher Life doesn’t have? Or the bigger classrooms that allow socially distanced desks? Or the extra assistants who supervise those 75-foot lines at the bathroom? Or new desks to replace the tables where children can no longer sit together? Or the extra crayons and scissors and whatnot, now that it’s unsafe for kids to share? Who is going to sub for all the teachers who are quarantined, or who ordinarily would come to work even when they feel sick, but shouldn’t do that now?

If we do find a sub- what germs are they bringing in? Where have they been? If they test positive do all schools they have been subbing at have to quarantine?

If school reopening were really a priority, there would be a plan and there would be money to implement that plan. There isn’t. That’s got to tell you something.


[1] For what it’s worth: I would not take these threats seriously. Trump does not understand how the government works, so he often makes threats he has no idea how to carry out. In this case, attempts to redirect funding approved by Congress would be blocked by the courts, at least until the next presidential term begins in January. If we can vote Trump out, those cuts will never happen.

What he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seem to be hinting at is turning federal aid into a voucher that students can use for private schools in areas where public schools are not physically open. (This is what DeVos wanted to do even before the pandemic.) But neither DeVos nor the White House press secretary have been able to explain what legal authority would allow them to do this.

And I know it’s petty, but comparisons between DeVos and Harry Potter’s Delores Umbridge never get old.

[2] I think Trump is the one who doesn’t get it here, probably because he doesn’t understand people who live for others. Parents will accept risks to themselves — going to an unsafe job, for example — if the family needs it. But they have a far lower tolerance for risks to their children. Statistics don’t help here. Once you’ve told parents that their child could die, they’re not going to pay much attention to the exact probabilities.

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Comments

  • EFCL  On July 13, 2020 at 2:17 pm

    One reason children have a lower incidence may well be the success of the early closure and of the social distancing enforce (well enough anyway) since mid Match. The virus wasn’t spreading rapidly in schools before they were shut down, so we actually don’t know anything about propagation under “normal” conditions.

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