Sunday, September 20, 2020

Essay: COVID-19 and the School Reopening Crisis

“For schools, COVID-19 is a new crisis stacked on top of a very old one. Funding for public education has dropped precipitously since the Great Recession: In 2015 more than half of states were spending less per student than they did in 2008. Many of the equity issues that [Donald] Trump and [Secretary of Education Betsy] DeVos cite in their push to reopen schools are long-standing, exacerbated by funding schemes that tie school resources to the local tax base and by segregation. Both are political choices; neither will be resolved simply by reopening schools this fall. Other choices loom on the horizon as the virus decimates state revenues. The pandemic may have reminded Americans of how much they need schools and teachers. It’s also made it clear that the country is a long way from making them a priority.”— Zoe Carpenter, “Back to School? We’ve Squandered Our Chance to Reopen Safely,” The Nation, Sept. 7/14, 2020

A teacher friend of mine from the Midwest told me several weeks ago that, though schools refer to “remote” or “distance” learning, the correct phrase might be “crisis education.” I don’t envy the task that she and her colleagues face this year.

As with so much else that has happened in 2020, COVID-19 has created one more burden on a society buckling under the strain. It has not only magnified issues of inequality long latent in U.S. public schools, but has now put the safety of teachers at cross-purposes to lower-wage service workers who lack the luxury of supervising their children’s online learning while working remotely themselves.

Politicians blew their chance of extricating America from Stage 1 of the pandemic, so we are now seriously contemplating putting in harm’s way thousands of teachers nationwide that we profess to value.

My teacher friend will face a different half of her students each day. That was supposed to decrease children’s exposure to the virus, anyway, if not teachers’, but the plan doesn’t look like it’s working. It’s only a week into the school year, and already half a dozen students have tested positive for the virus at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Anyone pressing for an immediate school reopening should remember this: according to a U.S. News and World Report article from this past May, nearly one-third of U.S. public school teachers are over 50—the demographic group that in our educational institutions, by virtue of the “co-morbidities” of this age segment, will run the greatest risk of severe infection.

Imagine that: parents oblivious to the possibility of America’s most experienced educators being decimated by a new disease whose after-effects are still not completely known. If you ask me, that’s a new form of age discrimination. Is that really the best way to run our schools?

Adult advocates of reopening are also ignoring an enduring, age-old reality: youths’ propensity for risky behavior. Are they forgetting what they were like as teenagers? Do they really think that their children will magically stop drinking, taking drugs, or congregating in mass groups—the type of misbehavior most likely to spread the virus?

We are already seeing the consequences of hasty school reopenings. As of when I wrote this post,  this map and database maintained by the National Education Association and volunteers shows that 3,615 American schools and campuses had reported COVID-19 cases from July 16 to September 18, resulting in 11,712 cases, 1,246 possible outbreaks—and 43 deaths.

Americans have long prided themselves on being an exceptional people. But this year, we are an object of pity and fear to the rest of the world on the spiraling consequences when ignorance and orneriness replace reason and calm in public debates. They are the kind of “substitutes” we should never allow in schools.

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