Last week, the CDC issued a new set of Covid safety guidelines encouraging schools to reopen their classrooms, but whose provisions were watered down to please the major national teachers’ unions which have been fighting to keep public schools closed in big cities across the country as long as the pandemic is still with us.
During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden made Donald Trump’s alleged mishandling of the pandemic a major issue, and announced his determination to safely reopen the nation’s classrooms as quickly as possible to keep schoolchildren from falling further behind in their studies. But since taking office last month, Biden has waffled on that promise, demanding costly pre-conditions before reopening school buildings — such as upgrading or installing new ventilation systems — that would delay a full return to classroom learning for months, and perhaps longer.
At the same time, the Biden administration had been reluctant to recognize the mounting evidence that heroic school Covid safety precautions are largely unnecessary, especially for elementary grades, kindergarten and pre-schools, because most healthy pre-teen children exhibit a natural immunity to the Covid virus.
In addition, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was embarrassed at a news conference two weeks ago when CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, speaking at an official briefing, confirmed scientific findings that it is generally safe for teachers to return to their classrooms prior to getting the Covid vaccine, as long as they are wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
The CDC director’s statement undercut the demands made by teachers’ unions around the country, which have refused to permit the reopening of public schools for in-person classroom learning until all their members have been vaccinated. Not wanting to publicly criticize the teachers’ unions, which have long been major political supporters and contributors to Democrat candidates, Psaki struggled at the White House press briefing to explain why the administration was not demanding immediate nationwide school reopenings.
Psaki “clarified” that Walensky was only speaking in her “personal capacity” when she made the statement at a CDC press conference that scientific evidence shows no need for teachers to be vaccinated before they can return to their classrooms. When asked what the official CDC policy was on the need to vaccinate teachers, she told reporters to wait until the CDC officially released its full school reopening guidelines, which she assured reporters would be finalized after “listening to the experts” and “following the science.”
The CDC school reopening guidelines were finally released late last week, several days behind schedule. They turned out to be a hodgepodge of familiar infection control recommendations, as well as a color-coded school reopening plan based upon meeting unrealistically low targets for community Covid positive testing rates and reported new cases.
PROTECTING THE TEACHERS’ UNIONS
The new guidelines fudged when addressing the question of whether to make vaccinating teachers a high priority in light of the need to reopen schools as quickly as possible. It praised the idea as a worthy goal, but then suggested it might not be practical given the limitations on vaccine supplies.
The guidelines also placed an emphasis on handwashing and surface cleaning which some infection experts criticized as unnecessary, because it has been established that coronavirus transmission is primarily airborne.
The teachers’ unions have been conducting an organized campaign to keep the public schools closed while their members remain on their payrolls and demand vaccinations before allowing classrooms to reopen. Union leaders were obviously relieved that the new CDC guidelines avoided directly confronting their obstructionist tactics, and were vague enough to enable them to endorse their proposals without having to sacrifice the unions’ priorities, and pretend that they are part of the solution rather than the problem.
“The CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement soon after the guidelines were released. “For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.”
National Education Association President Becky Pringle said the new guidelines are “a good first step, but now it’s time for action.” She asserted that “too many schools do not have in place the basic protections that the CDC has said are universally required… If they are applied universally in every community and the resources are put in place equitably for all students, our school buildings will be safe for in-person learning.” Pringle’s statement implies that since those resources are clearly not yet in place, many school buildings are not yet safe enough for teachers to return to their classrooms, and that the unions are justified in refusing to allow them to reopen.
PARENTS GROWING IMPATIENT
Disappointed parents, who had hoped the new CDC guidelines would expedite the reopening the of schools for tens of millions of children whose education, mental health and social development have suffered during the past year of classroom lockdowns, expressed their growing frustration and outrage.
“They’re saying everybody should wear masks, although of course not at lunch,” said Dr. Myrto Ashe, a family medicine specialist told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They’re saying open the windows, but not if you can’t. They’re saying you should distance by six feet, but in some schools that’s not gonna be possible and it shouldn’t be an obstacle to reopening. They’re saying vaccinating would be a great idea, but we won’t be able to do it in time. They’re saying testing is so nice, but it’s expensive so you don’t have to.”
According to Ashe and other medical experts, the CDC’s new guidelines are still based upon flawed assumptions about how the virus spreads. They also place excessive and unnecessary restrictions on schools desperate to reopen and halt the mental health and academic damage being done to students due to the obvious shortcomings of distance learning.
CHILDREN PAYING A HEAVY PRICE
According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, as of December, about 55% of school districts across the country were offering remote learning to their students at least part of the time, resulting in a measurable decline in student academic performance and mental health.
School attendance, both in person and remotely, has dropped significantly since the start of this academic year, and continues to decline as the lockdowns persist. According to a report by online testing firm Renaissance Learning Inc., many students have fallen significantly behind expectations in math, and to a lesser extent in reading ability in some grades.
According to the CDC, mental health-related visits to hospital emergency departments rose by 24% for children between the ages of 5-11, between April and October of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, before the pandemic, and by 31% for 12- to 17-year-olds.
CDC GUIDELINES IGNORE THE LATEST SCIENCE
Dr. Jeanne Noble, the head of the Covid response team of the emergency medicine department at the University of California hospital in San Francisco, said the new CDC guidelines take an unnecessarily “conservative approach, no longer supported by the best data, that adolescents represent a higher risk for in-school transmission.” She adds that the guidelines also create a false linkage between community transmission rates and school reopenings, “despite data from North Carolina and Wisconsin that suggest community prevalence [of the virus] does not predict school transmission, while mask adherence does.”
Dr. Noble was referring to a recent study of 17 schools in rural Wisconsin that reopened in the fall requiring only the wearing of masks and dividing students into small groups. While the schools didn’t avoid new Covid cases altogether, the rate of new infections in the schools was 37% lower than in the surrounding communities.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky herself seemed somewhat defensive about the appearance of political influence in the formulation of the new guidelines in response to continuing pressure from the teachers’ unions to slow down the school reopenings. At the CDC press conference where the new guidelines were announced, Walensky felt the necessity to emphasize to reporters that the process of drafting them was “free of political meddling.”
She also stressed that the “CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.”
Asked why she was not taking a stronger stance on the need for schools to reopen as soon as possible, Walensky explained she did not “have the authority to demand or mandate that schools open.” She also claimed that the language in the Biden administration CDC guidance is “stronger” than before, and that it’s “more prescriptive here as to putting some guard rails on what can and should be done in order to get to a safe reopening.”
BIDEN’S MISLEADING CALL TO REOPEN SCHOOLS
President Biden issued a statement hailing the new guidelines as based upon the “best available scientific evidence on how to reopen schools safely.” He also said that some schools will need more personnel, resources and supplies to reopen safely.
“These needs cost money. But the cost of keeping our children, families, and educators safe is nothing when compared with the cost of inaction,” Biden said. “Today, an entire generation of young people is on the brink of being set back up to a year or more in their learning.” But the CDC guidelines clearly fail to reflect the urgency to reopen schools as quickly as possible, which he emphasized while running for president last year.
President Biden has promised to help reopen a majority of K-8 schools across the country before the end of his first 100 days in office, He also called the lack of classroom time for students of America a “national emergency.”
But after he made that promise, Jen Psaki was forced to backtrack on it. She explained that the president’s pledge only meant that more than half of schools would be open for in-person instruction at least one day a week, with the goal of full-time school five days a week pushed off into the indefinite future. Furthermore, Psaki admitted, Biden’s 50% school reopening goal does not apply to high schools and their students.
Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel notes that the newly defined White House goal of “opening” schools — meaning 50% holding classes at least one day a week — is effectively meaningless in light of a data from Burbio’s School Opening Tracker showing that “64% of elementary and middle-school students are already getting some form of in-person instruction.”
Similarly, Strassel notes that Biden’s widely publicized promise to accelerate the rate of Covid vaccine inoculations to “100 million shots in 100 days” of his taking office had to be quietly withdrawn when it became clear that the goal had already been surpassed by the system that Trump had put in place by the first week of Biden’s presidency.
TRUMP’S COVID PLAN IS WORKING
Biden loudly complained, both before and after taking office, about the Trump administration’s “worst performance of any nation on Earth” in responding to the pandemic. But since taking power, Biden and his administration have made few changes to the crash vaccine production and national distribution plan and logistical network that Trump and his team put into operation last summer, and which has now gotten up to full speed after a rocky start. It is now on track to deliver the promised 400 million doses of vaccine by summer.
Strassel’s conclusion is that Biden’s pandemic proposals are largely a “me-too” version of the plan that Trump put in place, offering “little different on the substance” of what his White House predecessor had been doing.
Biden campaigned on the issue of school reopening while running for president in September 2020. He said at that time: “President Trump may not think this is a national emergency, but I think going back to school for millions of children and the impacts on their families and the community is a national emergency. I believe that’s what it is.
“Mr. President,” Biden continued,” where are you? Where are you? Why aren’t you working on this? Mr. President, that’s your job. That’s what you should be focused on right now. Getting our kids back to school safely.”
Many parents are now asking the same questions of Biden that he asked of Trump less than six months ago.
THROWING MORE MONEY AT SCHOOLS IS NOT THE ANSWER
In response to the impatient demands by parents around the country to reopen their children’s schools for classroom learning, Biden has responded that the major obstacle to achieving that goal is a lack of federal money for the K-12 schools, and that the solution is the passage of his $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, which includes $130 billion for that purpose. But the fact is that the five relief packages that were passed by Congress last year contained $68 billion for Covid mitigation projects in the nation’s K-12 schools, and most of that is still unspent. It is not at all clear that earmarking another $130 billion of borrowed money will hasten school reopenings at all, or if it is even necessary.
Most yeshivos and Catholic parochial schools around the country, which are much less well-funded on a per-pupil basis than big city public schools, have managed to reopen for full time five-days-a-week classroom learning with little added funding or delay.
Nancy Bui, the principal at the Rooftop School, a pre-K–8 public school in San Francisco, has been studying how the private schools have been able to reopen so quickly and safely without a major infusion of new resources. She found that many of the necessary Covid infection mitigation procedures — such as staggering entrances and re-organizing classrooms to comply with social distancing requirements — can be implemented at little or no cost.
CHRONIC NEGLECT OF INNER-CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Many inner-city public schools across the country were already deprived of adequate funding for the basic necessities to carry out their functions before the pandemic arrived.
“There isn’t hot water in many of our schools, nor is there soap or paper towels,” Kristen Stephens, an associate professor of the practice of education at Duke University, told the Wall Street Journal.
Another major problem in safely reopening older school buildings is equipping them with the adequate ventilation capacity to avoid the accumulation of the virus in closed classrooms. The Philadelphia School District and its teachers’ union are battling over that issue in negotiating the terms for resuming in-person learning.
The district has installed simple residential window fans in the older schools that lack mechanical ventilation systems, which the union says are unhealthy and unsafe, because they bring in cold air during the winter months and overload the buildings’ electrical wiring.
Thoroughly retrofitting these old school buildings with modern ventilation systems would typically be a difficult and expensive process, each of which could take several months to accomplish.
According to a Rockefeller Foundation study, another major logistical and staffing challenge for many schools would be implementing a plan for the frequent Covid testing of all teachers, school staff and students.
CDC ADOPTS CUOMO’S FAILED COLOR CODE ZONE APPROACH
According to the CDC’s new color-coded zone guidelines, areas reporting less than 10 new cases per 100,000 population over the previous week are in Blue zones, and those with between 10 and 50 cases are in Yellow zones. In both color zones, the CDC now says that all K-12 school classrooms can safely reopen at full capacity while observing social distancing requirements. Furthermore, researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health say that social distancing requirements can be safely reduced to just three feet for younger students.
The CDC recommends that schools in areas with infection rates of between 50-100 per 100,000 population, designated as Orange zones, adopt hybrid learning schedules of mixed remote and in-person learning, and reduced attendance with strict social distancing observance.
Red zones are defined by the CDC guidelines as areas of high virus transmission with a rate of more than 100 infections per 100,000 people per week. In these areas, the CDC recommends that schools which conduct frequent Covid screening tests of all staff and students be permitted to operate a hybrid learning schedule for all grade levels. For those schools which do not conduct such screening, hybrid learning with social distancing should be permitted only for the elementary grades, while all higher-grade classes should be taught entirely by remote technology.
The CDC’s new color zone system is similar to the approach originally adopted by New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, but which they both abandoned a few months ago because it was widely criticized as arbitrary and too complex to implement.
With regard to other infection prevention measures, a new CDC study conducted in October of nearly 4,000 13- to 21-year-old students learning in classrooms found the rate of adherence to mask-wearing regulations in school to be less than optimal. About 65% of students said their fellow students wore masks all the time in classrooms and hallways, but only 42% wore them on school buses, 40% in bathrooms, and 36% in the school cafeteria when they were not eating.
EQUITY VS. EQUALITY — UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE
Commenting on the new CDC guidelines, National Education Association President Becky Pringle demanded that community resources be “put in place equitably for all students,” as a precondition for reopening the schools.
The concept of “equity” in this context should be understood as a vaguer substitute for the goal of “equality,” which epitomized this country’s Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. Equality has fallen out of favor in the current race-based rhetoric of the political left, because it has always been understood as a demand for a level playing field in which everyone, regardless of their race or ethnic heritage, is given an opportunity to achieve their goals. Traditionally, when talking about “equality,” only a fair opportunity is guaranteed, not the success of the outcome.
That is no longer sufficient for today’s liberals. Their concept of “equity” is a moral imperative requiring everyone to fail or succeed at the same level, regardless of their circumstances or ability. Any disparity in such outcomes between liberal-certified identity groups, such as blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women, etc., compared to the fictitious identity group called “whites,” must be the result of the latter’s exploitation, racism or some other form of immoral prejudice going back hundreds of years.
In the context of the Covid pandemic, the fact that “communities of color,” which by definition excludes all “white” persons, suffer disproportionately higher rates of infection and death, is assumed by liberals and the mainstream media to be due to the fact that they are the victims of “systemic racism” inflicted by white people.
In fact, that disparity in Covid infections and outcomes, which is undeniably real, is primarily due to the differences in the economic circumstances and educational backgrounds of members of those communities, rather than the direct result of any racial prejudice or discrimination they have suffered from “whites,” who are being held morally responsible by liberals nevertheless.
That is not to say that members of those communities shouldn’t be given the additional medical care and the help they need to protect themselves against the virus. By all means, they should get it, because they are, statistically, more vulnerable — but that is not the fault of any other group, or American society as a whole.
COVID’S ECONOMIC IMPACT ON MINORITIES
The impact of the Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns of businesses which had employed large numbers of such workers has had a disproportionate economic impact on blacks, Latinos and female workers who have lost their jobs, or who have been forced to quit to stay home and take care of their kids who can no longer learn in their schools every day.
In that respect, reopening the public schools as quickly as possible is vital to restoring the equality of opportunity for members of these groups. Liberals are demanding that the government give them huge unemployment checks, as a matter of “equity,” to guarantee them the same standard of living they had when working. But conservatives who oppose overgenerous government handouts would much rather see those who have been forced to stop working because of the pandemic get their jobs back. That would restore their dignity, self-reliance and economic opportunities, and enable them to once again support their families and get through the pandemic by dint of their own efforts. For most working-class parents of school-age children, that means reopening the schools so that they can go back to their jobs.
THE ROOTS OF THE CURRENT PROBLEM
Much of the problem traces back to attempts by well-meaning liberals in the 1960s and 1970s to correct the problem of widespread racial discrimination during that period, with a focus on the manipulation of public-school students through court-ordered forced busing in the name of racial integration. In fact, those kids and their families were used as pawns in liberal experiments with social engineering, which ultimately had disastrous results both for the minority group members and the urban areas in which they lived.
Forced integration of public schools led to the widespread phenomenon called “white flight,” which made the inferiority of inner-city public schools far worse compared to the education in the public schools in the suburbs, where the middle-class people who abandoned the inner city made their new homes.
TODAY’S INNER-CITY VICTIMS
Once again, it’s mostly the “integrated” urban public schools that are closed during the pandemic due to the demands of the teachers’ unions on the Democrat local officials who are beholden to them for their campaign contributions and votes.
Once again, it is the poorer families and their kids — trapped by liberal elitism in the urban centers and unable to afford private school tuitions — who are the main victims of the pandemic. The inferior Zoom education their kids are now receiving will guarantee that another generation of mostly minority, economically disadvantaged young people will be deprived of the equal opportunity to succeed as adults. The pandemic has made them even more dependent on big government handout programs controlled by liberals and financed with deficit spending.
Meanwhile, middle class, working class and/or minority group parents with sufficient financial means or who realize that the future of their kids is at stake, will continue to vote with their feet. They are leaving the Democrat-controlled big cities and financially failing blue states in droves, seeking other places in this country where schools and small businesses are still open, and they have, once again, an equal opportunity to succeed.