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July 7, 2020; Politico, Washington Post, and the New York Times

Let’s face it, few were completely happy with the state of this country’s public schools even before the pandemic hit. But reasons why people deeply want to see schools reopen are easy to find. In a recent statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics examined the broad and critical role schools play and highlighted the societal risks of continued closure:

The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.

Officially speaking for New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, spokesperson Jean Mayer put into words the hope of every civic and educational leader when she told the New York Times, “As we put the worst of this crisis behind us, we know most families want to have their students back in school buildings come September, and we are working to do as much as we can safely.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association, “The principle should be how can we prudently, with sensitivity to the safety of the kids, get the children back to school.”

And, in an uncomfortable juxtaposition of messages, the president of the United States tweeted in capital letters earlier this week that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL,” even as he was moving forward on severing ties with the World Health Organization and as Texas logged a record-setting 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 in a single day.

Trump followed up his first tweet with a tone-deaf second: “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!” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos chimed in, “It’s clear that our nation’s schools must fully reopen and fully operate this school year. Anything short of that robs students, not to mention taxpayers, of their future.”

But as the summer grinds on, it may become less, rather than more clear what states, school districts, and parents must do to keep their children and their households safe. Some schools, not yet reopened, are planning on doing so as early as the first week in August. This is the case, for instance, in the Houston area, where daily records reaching into five figures are being set for the number of new cases. Records are also being set and re-set in the number of those hospitalized and in the ICU.

Restrictions loosened are being reimplemented, and, more to the point, despite the pandemic’s reputed passing over of children, new numbers from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services indicate that the most recent tests at child care facilities in Texas have produced 1335 positive cases—894 staff members and 441 children from 883 centers.

This is not the only evidence, as one report in The Hill details:

Nearly 100 schools in Israel shut down in early June, after students or teachers tested positive in the weeks after the nation reopened its education facilities. A week after France reopened about a third of its schools, dozens of students tested positive and some institutions shut down once again. And in South Korea, hundreds of schools were open for just a few days before the Ministry of Education ordered them closed.

In the United States, at least 120 students living in fraternity houses at the University of Washington have tested positive for the virus.

What are responsible parents and communities to think and do? Finding answers has been left to local and state school leaders, who are trying to translate the general public health guidelines recommending the wearing of face masks, frequent handwashing and equipment cleaning, maintaining social distance, and socially isolating after exposure to a known COVID-19 carrier into the specific environment of each school building and its surrounding community. Again, to avoid the experience of Israel, France, and South Korea, which hastily opened their schools only to have to close them again when the pandemic flared up, planners need to account for the realities of their children, their buildings, and their personnel.

As teacher, education researcher, and blogger Dr. Mark Webber recently observed, “The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day. Schools were designed for efficiency, which means crowded hallways and tight classrooms.” What’s more, “Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day” and “anyone who’s worked with young children knows they will play with their masks.”

The risks of getting this wrong are great. Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of a school superintendents association, seemed to be pointing to Florida, which recently issued a statewide directive that local districts must provide every student with a five-day-a-week in-school experience or lose their state education funding, when he told Politico, “That is going to be a horror…it’s not going to be adults getting infected, it’s going to be children, and it’s going to be the adults that work with those children.”

Combating COVID-19 requires a kind of individual and communal patience that’s proving to, along with most of the other consequences of the pandemic, hit the poorest hardest—a fact that needs to be acknowledged and addressed financially. It may be necessary for schools to partially open using staggered scheduling and a blending of in-person and online education, but what does that mean for children without broadband and who have no in-home supervision if their parents must work? Building a consensus on how we as a nation will balance the health risks of the virus against our need to resume old patterns will be critical if we are not to continue to start and stop.

It will also require policy support and funding to adjust scheduling, retrofit school buildings, and augment school staff. The bill will not be small. According to a recent report from the Council of Chief State School Officers that was submitted to the U.S. Senate, “School systems will need flexibility within the CARES Act, and between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion in total additional funding, to reopen school buildings safely and serve all students in the next academic year.” Additional support will be needed to replace the non-educational import of schools as feeding sites and childcare providers, too.

None of this can be done without national leadership and action. With Congress in recess and a president denying the pandemic is real and serious, building a safe way forward will be hard. The worry of Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, that “school districts will give in to a politician or some business that wants their workers freed up to come back and work in a factory somewhere, and that then they will be forced to open unsafe schools” may become a reality—one we will regret.—Martin Levine and Ruth McCambridge