While the United States has toyed around with reopenings focused on services like barber shops and restaurants, it’s avoided answering much bigger infrastructural questions, including how to reopen schools. While the COVID-related risks of reopening places that are populous and indoors-oriented are extremely clear, advocates are beginning to argue that schools are so badly needed, we should consider organizing reopening and safety protocols around what would best support kids returning to campuses, and let everything else flow from there.
On Tuesday, economics and education professor Sarah Cohodes wrote in the Atlantic that school reopenings could happen in the fall… if opening them safely became the country’s top priority. “Instead of speeding forward with reopening their economies,” she argued, “states should do everything in their power to make a return to school possible in the fall—especially for younger children.”
Cohodes argued for elementary schools specifically to resume in-person learning, citing one study that indicates younger children are at higher risk for learning loss due to COVID-19 school closures. She also pointed to the fact that younger children “are in a key period for learning how to read.”
Meanwhile, 22 million children in the U.S. rely on free or price-reduced school lunches, meaning that child hunger has increased since schools closed. A report by the New York Times found that most students in the U.S. are already suffering academically, and that socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps “will most likely widen” due to lack of access to resources like computers or a strong internet connection. Child safety advocates have even expressed concerns about the way school closures make it more difficult for teachers to identify and assist students with neglectful or abusive home environments.
It’s not just that kids are missing out on personal development either: Internet missives from parents, especially those with young children, have become so bleak they’re hard to look at.
It’s easy to see what drives the desperation. Essential workers with children have had to risk infecting their loved ones to stay afloat; remote workers with children have had to assume full-time childcare roles alongside their workloads; and stay-at-home parents have had to tackle remote learning. One woman is even suing her former employer for gender discrimination and wrongful termination, after she was allegedly fired because her 4-year-old and infant were audible during Zoom meetings.
Debates over the upcoming decision of whether or not schools should reopen in the fall have only intensified the situation.
Donald Trump and Department of Education secretary Betsy DeVos both expressed support for school reopenings in the fall on Twitter this week. Trump threatened to withhold federal funding for schools that don’t reopen, and criticized the CDC’s school reopening guidelines as “very tough & expensive.”
But the lack of federal action when it comes to fulfilling every requirement for a safe reopening process underscores how empty and futile Trump’s demands on teachers and public school systems across the country really are. By failing to listen to public health experts every step of the way; refusing to work with countries who successful contained COVID-19; failing to implement widespread testing and contact tracing; turning mask-wearing into a culture war issue; failing to provide adequate aid for unemployed and underemployed parents; and prioritizing business reopenings and mysterious corporate bailouts over education, the Trump administration has created conditions where a safe, cohesive school reopening policy is effectively impossible to implement.
DeVos argued on Tucker Carlson’s show that “the data hasn’t suggested” any obstacles exist to reopening schools in the fall (again, uh, that isn’t true). “Adults who are fear mongering and making excuses simply have got to stop doing it and turn their attention on what is right for students and for their families.”
Quasi-functional and safe school reopenings will require an immense amount of coordination, and serious funding to boot. “Keeping the case counts of the virus as low as possible, via business closures (with unemployment assistance and stimulus to compensate) and required universal mask wearing” is essential, per Cohodes. But as long as the federal government provides profoundly little support and leaves states to expend valuable time and resources tinkering with retail shops and nail salons, it’s leaving the question of schools very badly in need of an answer.
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