Let me get a show of hands: How many of you do not want schools back in session for in-person classes as soon as it’s safe? How many of you think exclusive remote learning is by far the best way to educate kids? How many of you would rather keep teachers and students home for a long time to come?
Hmm. I’m not seeing any hands. That’s odd, because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, among others, seems to think that the only thing standing in the way of getting America’s schools back to normal operations is that some people prefer to keep them closed.
“Schools are essential, teachers are essential, kids have got to get back in school,” she declared Wednesday. The opposition to reopening this fall, she said, “seems to be centered more around adult needs and issues than it is about what’s right for kids.”
Donald Trump sees bad faith in state and local officials who decline to return to in-person instruction right away. “They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed,” he charged.
Maybe those officials are listening to their constituents. A recent poll sponsored by the nonpartisan National Parents Union found that 62% of parents say school closures will have a negative impact on their kids — but 54% nonetheless believe that “schools should remain closed until they are certain there is no health risk, even if it means students fall farther behind.”
From the administration’s complaints, you might think that teachers love working from the basement trying to instruct kids on Zoom. In fact, teachers didn’t go into teaching in order to avoid direct contact with youngsters or to avoid ever leaving the house.
DeVos fails to grasp that the needs of teachers and other staff are not at odds with those of students. Kids may be less susceptible than adults to the more serious effects of the coronavirus, but kids who get it can transmit it to teachers. They can also give it to other kids, who can give it to their parents, grandparents and others living with them. When the adults in a child’s life gets a serious illness, guess what? The child will suffer as well.
This simple reality is what makes the rush to reopen schools so shortsighted. You can reopen a school, but if teachers come down with COVID-19, they won’t be available to teach in person — and may not be available to teach online. Students will be worse off than if the school had stuck to virtual learning.
An editorial in The Wall Street Journal said that “schools that have reopened in most countries, including Germany, Singapore, Norway, Denmark and Finland, haven’t experienced outbreaks.” But those countries have done a much better job of containing the virus.
Finland has had half as many total cases as Florida recorded on Thursday alone. On a per capita basis, the United States has four times more infections than Germany and Denmark and eight times more than Finland. The more cases, the greater the risk of spreading the disease in schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that schools keep students six feet apart, close off cafeterias and playgrounds and require kids to wear masks. But Mike Pence says he and the president don’t want the rules to be “too tough.” Even if schools follow the CDC guidelines, enforcing social distancing and face covering will be a formidable daily challenge, if not an impossible one.
There is also the matter of resources. If classrooms can hold only half as many kids as before, twice as many classrooms will be needed to accommodate everyone. Most schools don’t have vast amounts of vacant space they can put into service. Nor do they have lots of extra teachers to handle extra classes.
One suggestion is that schools hold classes outdoors. That can work in some places — but it’s no solution in September in Houston, Atlanta or Phoenix. Likewise, most of the country is ill-suited for al fresco learning from November through March, which is most of the academic year.
The administration seems far more determined to reopen schools quickly than to reopen them safely. But if schools don’t reopen safely, they won’t be reopened for long. We will have the worst of both worlds: closed schools and more disease. Plus, some people will die.
Trump and DeVos think they can mandate the resumption of normal school operations. They forget that the virus has a veto.