One of the most difficult issues of the pandemic is when and how schools should reopen. Parents and teachers are eager for them to reopen, but only if the schools are safe and protected from the disease that is ravaging so much of the nation. Parents want their children back in school. They are tired of pretending to be teachers, organizing their children’s time every day. Teachers are eager to resume in-person instruction, but not at risk of their lives. Even students are eager to return to school, to see their friends, to engage in class discussions, to participate in school activities.
School has resumed in other nations like Denmark, Finland, and South Korea. Those countries that have reopened their schools have added daily temperature checks, reduced class sizes, and provided whatever personnel and equipment was needed to protect the health of students and staff.
US states could follow suit, but for school to resume safely here, two necessities must be in place. First, the pandemic must be under control. Infection rates must be low and dropping. Nations that have successfully opened their schools tamed the coronavirus first. Second, the schools must be able to provide safe conditions, meaning small class sizes, extra nurses, disinfected and active ventilation systems, additional cleaning staff, and personal protective equipment for children and adults. Since every state’s tax revenues have been diminished by the economic effects of the pandemic, school budgets are being slashed at the very moment when they need more resources.
In the United States, the pandemic is surging in the South and in parts of the West. In the absence of federal leadership, each state has been free to write its own rules for behavior, and governors in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and several other states have followed the lead of President Trump by refusing to mandate the obvious requirements for public health and safety, such as wearing a mask and maintaining a safe distance from others to avoid the spread of the disease. Even states that have managed to contain the virus, like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, remain vulnerable to new outbreaks because of tourism and travel.
Amid this uncertainty and anxiety, President Trump has decided that the reopening of schools is essential to his prospects for reelection. He wants to bring back the strong economy for which he claims credit, but which collapsed as the pandemic spread. He wants stores to open, factories to resume production, and commerce to pick up again. He wants this economic revival to occur without following the guidelines laid out by his own administration’s scientists and medical experts. Until recent weeks, Trump has refused to wear a mask in public and has tried to maintain the pretense that all is well and, as he puts it, the virus will magically “disappear” one day. His supporters have followed his example and have demonstrated at state capitols in opposition to mask-wearing mandates and any other restrictions on their normal activity.
In mid-July, Trump demanded that schools across the nation reopen on time for in-person instruction, so that life and the economy could return to normal. He did this without regard to the upsurge in the coronavirus and without any assurance that federal money would be available to protect students and staff. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, notable for her belief that public schools are a “dead end,” reiterated Trump’s demands and threatened to cut the funding of schools that continued to use remote learning instead of in-person instruction. The federal funds over which she exercises a measure of control—only a small proportion of schools’ budgets, whose funding comes mainly from states—is dedicated to supporting poor children and students with disabilities. Vice President Mike Pence quickly added his support for the rapid reopening of schools, despite conditions that made them unsafe.
School leaders complained that they should not open schools that did not comply with the guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which specifically recommended social distancing, masks, testing, and other protocols. The initial CDC guidelines, released in May, said that a full reopening would pose the “highest risk” to students and staff unless all precautions were taken to protect them. The “lowest risk,” said the CDC at that time, was “virtual-only classes, activities, and events.”
Trump, DeVos, and Pence declared that the CDC guidelines were too rigorous and too expensive and that the agency would soon lower its standards. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said that “science should not stand in the way” of reopening schools fully, as the Trump administration wished.
By late July, the Trump administration was pressuring governors and mayors to reopen schools, claiming the social and psychological costs to children of staying home would be worse than the virus. And, as Trump had earlier predicted, the CDC bent to White House demands and revised its guidelines to reflect the views of the president and secretary of education. Its new guidelines, released July 23, were titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.” The newly revised guidance emphasized the social, emotional, and educational benefits of in-person instruction, as well as the low incidence of virus transmission among young children. The CDC’s shameful capitulation to political pressure not only compromised the health and safety of the nation’s children and educators but also eroded the agency’s scientific reputation.
While Trump was successful in pressuring the CDC to comply with his wishes, he could do nothing to dissuade the virus from spreading across California, Florida, Texas, Arizona, and other states. In California, where the rate of infections has soared, the two biggest school districts—Los Angeles and San Diego—announced on July 13 that they would continue with online instruction this fall. The largest teachers’ union in Florida filed a lawsuit on July 20 to block Governor Ron DeSantis’s order to open all schools for full-time instruction in the midst of the pandemic. Even districts like New York City where the pandemic has subsided are hesitant to reopen schools fully, both because they lack the resources to do it safely and because teachers and parents are fearful of unsafe conditions in the schools.
At no point have Trump or DeVos offered any plans or guidance or resources to school districts. The school leaders have been left on their own to figure out how to open safely without the funds to do so. Many are floundering, trying to cobble together distance learning; staggered schedules; some classes online, with others in-person; starting with young children or starting with older students. In the absence of definitive guidance from the CDC or any other authoritative agency, school leaders are trapped between parents who want schools to open, parents who don’t want schools to open, teachers who are fearful for their safety, and acute financial shortfalls.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer Laurie Garrett recently reviewed the available studies and concluded that a nationwide reopening of schools, as Trump demands, should be out of the question. While it is accurate that children under ten are less likely to get or transmit the virus, they are nonetheless not immune to it. A large study of children in South Korea found that children over ten transmit the virus as often as adults. Closing the schools in the spring did limit the spread of the virus in the US; reopening them too soon may be harmful to families and to the adults who work in schools. A safe reopening requires small classes, clean air, and other changes that are costly.
“What’s clear,” Garrett writes, “is that smaller classes with better air filter systems cost money. Fairness quickly becomes an issue: wealthy districts are more likely to have the resources to make such changes—and to pay for additional staff to accommodate more classes of fewer students. Communities with lower property tax bases are far less likely to have the money to adapt in this way to Covid-19.”
When journalists point out that other nations have managed to reopen their schools, they don’t always mention that they reopened after coronavirus infections were brought down to negligible numbers, and that not all reopenings have been successful. South Korea reopened its schools in May when it appeared to be safe to do so; then closed hundreds of its 20,000 schools only a few days later after a resurgence of the virus. Israel reopened its schools after a two-month lockdown, when the numbers of infections were in decline, but then it spiraled out of control again, and epidemiologists concluded that the reopening of the schools had happened too soon.
Among the ironies of the situation is that parents who are sick of distance learning are now willing to bear it as long as necessary to keep their children out of harm’s way: they want their children in a real school with real teachers, but most are willing to wait until it is safe to do so. Second, Betsy DeVos herself was an evangelist for distance learning and even praised it at her confirmation hearings in 2017, but is now demanding a return to brick-and-mortar schools. Third, the Trump administration, which scorned public schools, now sees them as essential for the lives of children, as well as the economy. And the situation is made even more challenging because the Trump administration has politicized decision-making and even the CDC itself.
No one is certain of the right course of action. We do know that the best way to tame the pandemic is for everyone to wear masks and to practice social distancing, yet many of our national and state leaders refuse to follow the authoritative dictates of science. We also know that schools cannot open where it is unsafe. But one question persists: If the Trump administration is willing to spend trillions to bail out corporations, banks, and airlines, why is it not willing to put up the $400-500 billion necessary to ensure the safety of our nation’s schools, children, and educators and to achieve what it claims to want: the reopening of our schools?