As coronavirus cases continue to rise, more public school systems are announcing they will reopen only online — even when faced with direct and intense public pressure from President Donald Trump.
So much enters the calculus for K-12 school reopenings, from the health dangers to the value of education to the disparate impacts and imperfections of online education. While there is no single right answer for all districts, consider this a nudge in the direction of reopening.
First and most important, there is a distinction between children spreading the virus and children spreading the virus through school activities. The case against a physical reopening rests on the public health dangers, but the relevant question is relative.
Even if the schools do not physically reopen, children will still hang out together. This is especially true for teenagers, and they are also a group that, in a South Korean study, can readily spread the virus to others. Not many parents are going to quarantine their 15-year-olds at home for many months, much less their 17-year-olds. Recall that Romeo and Juliet were teenagers and came together as lovers against extreme parental opposition and during a time of plague.
It is possible that these children will spread the virus less if they were at school than if they were spending time together on their own. At least at school there would be teachers and other staff to enforce some measure of social distancing and proper hygiene practices, such as regular hand-washing.
You can always make a kid safer by keeping him or her at home for a week. But that probably won’t work for what could amount to a 10-month period, if schools stay closed till next year.
To be sure, it’s by no means certain that schools will be safer places for children; whether they are will depend on the region. Still, the mere citation of public health dangers isn’t quite as decisive an argument against physical reopening as it may seem.
A related yet less explicit argument is that the public schools are in an awkward place if the virus spreads there. The schools would seem directly responsible for the problem, and parents (and taxpayers) might start trusting them much less. It is easy to imagine the extra costs of teachers quitting and morale plummeting in these scenarios.
Stated bluntly, this argument is simple: “We can’t let the public schools look bad.” Yet even making this argument is likely to make schools look bad — because most Americans know that other workplaces face generally similar issues when it comes to dealing with risk. Maybe the public is willing to cut teachers and school districts some slack for a while. But if the public schools still receive tax dollars yet cannot teach children in person, they will eventually lose political support.
No one likes to admit it, but one of the most important arguments for much of K-12 education is simply that it provides day care services for parents. Those services are essential not just for the smooth functioning of labor markets but for parental sanity as well. If schools can’t even provide that day care, maybe they won’t seem so necessary.
Many parents would prefer to keep their tax money and spend it on other educational opportunities, whether it’s sending their children to charter schools, private schools, “pod” schools, or some hybrid arrangement. “Vouchers for just this year” might prove popular, again making the public schools look bad.
If the U.S. moved to such a regime, there would be many more decentralized decisions about under what terms the schools should reopen (and in fact some of these private alternatives will spring into place without vouchers). Among other things, that raises again the possibility of contagion through children regardless of whether public schools are open.
Of course many school reopenings will bring only partial attendance, as polls of parents indicate skepticism about in-person classes. The resulting greater physical space for social distancing, and more limited possibilities for contagion, will again make people wonder why the public schools are physically closed altogether, given that some parents really wish to send their children.
One cannot in good conscience argue that every district should reopen, given the potential for disaster. And in many cases there probably just isn’t a correct moral answer as to whether school reopenings should proceed. Nonetheless, the arguments against the physical reopening of public schools are weaker than they at first appear. There is no way to truly protect children and their parents — or the reputations of teachers and public schools.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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