August 14, 2020; New York Times, ABC News, Washington Post, and Capital and Main

Schools have become ground zero for the nation’s struggle with an extremely dangerous virus. Week by week, we see how easily the deadly virus spreads when the advice of public health officials is not heeded. Rather than establish a way forward that balances children’s education with the serious health risk communities now face, many schools face intense political pressure to throw caution to the wind.

In a perfect world, children would be back in school. That’s where they learn best, where their emotional and social needs are most likely to be met. Plus, that would allow parents to return to work without the burden of finding alternative care. What is being disputed is whether this can be done safely, and how.

While federal officials have refused to set a clear national standard, public health organizations have been quite clear that in most parts of the US, opening schools just isn’t safe right now. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as reported by ABC News, students should be brought back into classrooms only when fewer than five percent of an area’s daily tests turn out positive for 14 days. As of yesterday, August 17, only 17 states meet that criteria. Even when that threshold can be safely crossed, a new school environment is still needed, one that mandates mask-wearing, proper distancing, and ongoing testing.

Nevertheless, many school districts have been unable to resist political pressure. As reported by the Washington Post, threats from Governor Ron DeSantis to deny state funding have led school districts across Florida to change their plans:

Palm Beach County was forced by the state to rewrite its plan for school reopenings and now will reopen school buildings to all students earlier than it wanted. Hendry County is a small school district in South Florida with a very high rate of positive coronavirus tests—21.4 percent on Thursday, according to the Florida Department of Health—that had wanted to open remotely but under state pressure will open campuses on August 31st.

School in states like Georgia and Indiana that opened despite the virus remaining out of control are not faring well. In Cherokee County, Georgia, children returned to their classrooms on August 4th. On August 14th, the New York Times reported that, “Nearly 1,200 students and staff members in the district have already been ordered to quarantine. On Tuesday, one high school closed its doors until at least August 31. A second high school followed on Wednesday.”

Some of the pressure for getting children back to school quickly comes from the ideological battle being waged by President Donald Trump. One parent, a cofounder of the national Tea Party Patriots, was pleased her Georgia district reopened and seemed untroubled that so many children and teachers had fallen ill. She told the Times, “The opening plan is working. They’re checking; they’re making sure when people have tested positive that they’re watching the exposure and spread.”

For others, the push for in-person instruction comes from families and children, whose needs are not in dispute. Alexa Sorden, an elementary school principal in the Bronx, while busily working to prepare her school, told the Times, “School, for some of our neediest children, is everything. It’s the only place where they know what to expect.”

In comments reported by Capital and Main, Newport Harbor High School English teacher Alex Goodman described what is at risk when school cannot open:

More than half of the students in his school, in the tony coastal town of Newport Beach, come from very affluent families. But more than one-third of the school’s attendees come from poorer neighboring cities, many from immigrant families where parents, and sometimes also children, are not fluent in English. When Newport Harbor went online, Goodman—who is co-founder and co-chair of the school’s Inclusion Council—watched in horror as a good number of the children from poorer families just disappeared.

Helena Miller, Rock Hill school board chair in South Carolina, was clear in comments reported by ABC: “There was no way for us to socially distance our children and follow other guidelines.” But New York City, with infection rates under control, wants to implement a hybrid program when school begins after Labor Day. As the Times reports, this is proving difficult.

Along with about 1,700 other school principals in New York City, [Principal Sorden] has spent the summer racing to complete a dizzying set of tasks.… How can she create two complementary versions of school—one online, one in-person—that both prevent her mostly low-income, Black, and [Latinx] students from falling further behind academically, and keep those children and their families safe? She stands in each corner of a classroom that once held 30 students and will now accommodate nine, and wonders if she can position each child so that they are breathing in different directions.

Reece Mann, the superintendent of Delaware Community School Corporation in Muncie, Indiana, recognizes another challenge—getting full cooperation from parents for whom there is a desperate need for childcare—in a recent email: “Unfortunately, we are in a situation where parents seem to be sending their child/children to school even when they are symptomatic or possibly even when they, as parents, have been tested and are awaiting the results, later to find out they are positive.”

One missing ingredient is money—that, and a lack of political support for the necessary changes. Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents’ association, estimates schools would need $490 per student to open safely—an amount that works out to over $26 billion nationwide. To date, the federal government hasn’t been able to step forward, so districts are left on their own.

The education of our children, their future economic and social welfare, and the health of entire communities hang in the balance. Leaving the science to those knowledgeable enough to interpret it, even when we do not like what it is telling us, is the right way to go. The alternative, sadly, is to place more people at risk, slow down getting done what must be done, and spend more in the end.—Martin Levine