Following the nationwide cancelation of the last three months of school to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus, a vigorous, politically-charged debate has broken out over whether the nation’s schools can be safely reopened for the approaching fall semester.
Advocates for reopening, led by President Trump and other administration officials, argue that the experience in European countries which reopened their schools in the late spring shows there is little danger of spreading the disease by sending otherwise healthy young children back to their classrooms. At the same time, America’s nationwide experiment in remote learning this past spring as a substitute for traditional classroom learning proved to be unsatisfactory for many children and their parents from an educational, sociological and economic point of view.
The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal demanded that local governments find a way to safely reopen public schools for American children in time for the start of this fall’s semester. “Reading, writing and arithmetic are not even the half of it,” the editorial argued. “Kids need to learn to compete and to cooperate. They need food and friendships; books and basketball courts; time away from family and a safe place to spend it.
“Parents need public schools, too. They need help raising their children, and they need to work.”
The editorial recognizes that the nation’s first priority is to regain control over the spread of the coronavirus, and that as long as the virus is still spreading through our communities rapidly, it would probably not be safe to reopen school classrooms.
It also notes that in some of the nation’s largest school districts, where the spread of the coronavirus is under control—including New York City, the Washington, DC, suburb of Fairfax County, Virginia, and Clark County (including Las Vegas), Nevada—local officials still claim they lack sufficient resources to restart full-time classroom operations.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, claims that it would not be safe to return all students to public school classrooms when the fall term starts on September 10, because the Covid-19 virus still poses a threat to public health. Noting that public schools don’t have enough room to provide for social distancing, his solution is to impose a schedule of alternating in-school and remote learning days for students during the school week. The plan would seriously compromise the quality of the education students receive, while vastly complicating the daily scheduling challenge for their two-paycheck working parents.
These “hybrid” solutions offering only part-time classroom learning would put American school children at a significant economic disadvantage to students in other countries which have been able to check the spread of the virus while fully reopening their schools without creating a spike in new cases.
However, safely reopening American schools in the coronavirus era does require finding creative answers to public health problems. These include the danger to older teachers and school administrative staff who are at higher risk of exposure to the virus from infected but asymptomatic children, finding a safe way to transport students to and from their schools, and the shortage of available child care for two paycheck families on school days when their children are required to learn remotely from home.
LOW RISKS AND LARGE BENEFITS
Reopening pre-schools and elementary school classrooms would provide major educational benefits, especially for younger children who generally can’t learn as effectively at home using online video sessions as high school students can. Another problem with remote learning is that it is unavailable to many students from poorer families which cannot afford internet access in their homes or enough devices to enable all students in the household to learn at the same time.
There is also evidence that children and teenagers are unlikely to transmit the virus to members of their families and to other adults. The risk of spreading the virus by opening preschools and the elementary schools has proven to be small, and the risk from opening intermediate and high schools is not much greater. In countries where schools have reopened, few outbreaks have been traced to elementary schools, and there have been no reported coronavirus clusters at child care centers that stayed open during the spring lockdown period.
While it is possible for young children and teens to become ill due to the virus, such cases are rare, even accounting for the discovery of MIS-C, a serious post-Covid-19 multi-symptom complication that appears in a very small percentage of recovered children.
According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, based upon contact tracing data from the original outbreak in China, the threat of an infected patient under the age of 18 transmitting the disease to another person was virtually nil. Based upon an analysis of coronavirus cases which led to more than 40,000 deaths, the senior author of the study reported the startling conclusion: “we have not found a single instance of a child infecting parents.”
The implications of that finding are clear. Based on concerns about possibly spreading Covid-19, there is no justification, other than politics, for keeping children out of school.
DID THE COSTS OF SCHOOL SHUTDOWNS JUSTIFY THE BENEFITS?
Public health experts agree that the closing of New York City schools in March did slow the spread of the virus somewhat, but the evidence now shows that observing social distancing measures and wearing masks was much more effective in “flattening the curve” of new Covid-19 cases. More importantly, countries in Europe—such as Norway and Denmark—which have reopened their schools for younger children have not experienced a surge in new cases. However, in Israel, the virus has infected more than 200 students and staff after schools reopened in early May and lifted the limits on class size a few weeks later, presumably due to lax enforcement more generally of mask-wearing and social distancing requirements.
The current debate in school districts across the country is whether the significant educational, economic and educational costs of maintaining school closures in the fall would outweigh the benefits from slightly slowing the spread of the virus.
The debate broke out into the open last week when President Trump publicly criticized guidelines that had been issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for the country’s schools. Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, then announced that the CDC would soon announce a new set of guidelines that would not be “too tough” to allow most schools to reopen in the fall.
CHANGING CDC GUIDELINES
The original CDC guidelines said that for schools to reopen safely, they must have modified, open classroom layouts that maintain adequate social distancing, or the installation of physical barriers within classrooms where sufficient distancing is not possible. In addition, reopened schools would be required to increase disinfection and cleaning of facilities, avoid serving communal meals in cafeterias, discourage sharing objects and ensure that ventilation systems provide for adequate circulation and filtration to prevent a buildup of virus-bearing droplets in the air.
The original guidelines say that if a school does have a confirmed Covid-19 case, students and “most” staff members should be dismissed for two to five days while local health officials consider what to do next.
Early last week, President Trump called local and state officials across the country, urging the full reopening of all schools this fall as a necessary step to complete the revival of the nation’s crippled economy from the Covid-19 lockdowns. He also accused those opposed to school reopenings this fall of trying to delay the recovery in an effort to damage his re-election prospects in November.
Trump then issued a tweet declaring that he disagrees with the original CDC guidelines, explaining that “While they [the CDC] want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!”
“In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, schools are open with no problems,” Trump tweeted. But he did not mention that most of those countries required schools to take added measures to reduce the threat of spreading the infection such as the mandatory wearing of masks, reducing class sizes and keeping children in small groups at recess and lunchtime.
POLITICAL MOTIVES FOR KEEPING SCHOOLS CLOSED
Trump added, “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November election, but is important for the children and families. [I] may cut off [federal Education Dept.] funding if [schools] not open!”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany later explained that Trump plans to “substantially bump up money for education” in the next congressional coronavirus relief package, but “this money should go to students.”
NYC Mayor de Blasio responded to Trump’s tweets by announcing that most of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students would be attending classes at the city’s 1,800 public schools, on a staggered schedule, ranging from only one to three days a week, supplemented by remote learning on the other days. The mayor’s proposal means that students will spend one or more of their weekly school days learning remotely from home, creating the need for their parents to make special day care arrangements on those days.
In-school day care for the children of working families is not just a New York City need. Economic consulting firm McKinsey estimates that 27 million workers nationwide will require child care, including full day school sessions for their children, before they can return to their pre-pandemic full-time jobs.
CUOMO ANNOUNCES HIS SCHOOL REOPENING CRITERIA
Reopening plans for New York City’s charter schools, private schools and parochial schools, including yeshivos, must be submitted for approval to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor said his guidelines will not be finalized until the first week of August.
“We will open the schools if it is safe to open the schools,” Cuomo said. “Everybody wants the schools open. Everybody. Nobody wants the schools open more than I do … But we want it to be safe.”
But on Monday, Cuomo did tie the reopening of in-person classrooms directly to his four-phase plan for restarting the state’s economy. All regions across New York State except New York City are currently in Phase 4 of the plan, and Cuomo said they will be eligible to reopen their schools with in-person classrooms as long as they maintain an average daily infection rate below 5%, over a sustained period.
Late last month, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced a similar “hybrid” plan including both classroom and remote learning for the state’s public school this fall. It would also include requirements for mask wearing and social distancing, as well as an emphasis on coronavirus testing for all students and school district employees.
Connecticut, on the other hand, is planning to reopen with a conventional full-time classroom schedule for all public school students in the fall. Class sizes will be reduced to accommodate social distancing and masks will be required. To limit the number of contacts that could spread the virus, school cafeterias will be closed, students will be required to stay in the same classroom throughout the day, and school hallways will be designated for one-way foot traffic.
REOPENING PLANS IN OTHER SCHOOL DISTRICTS
California’s Democrat governor, Gavin Newsom, announced Monday that the two largest unified school districts in the state, in Los Angeles and San Diego, will be starting their fall semesters next month using remote learning exclusively, due to a frightening surge in new cases in recent days. Newsom also announced that various types of businesses, restaurants, and religious institutions in 30 counties across California would be required to close once again in the wake of a sudden spike in cases. Previously, Los Angeles and San Diego school district leaders issue a joint statement declaring that, “the skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”
Last week, Dr. John Lee Evans of the San Diego Board of Education announced that his district was planning to fully reopen its classrooms five days a week, starting Aug. 31. He also said that his school board is also looking to Congress to appropriate additional funds to cover its anti-virus needs in the coming school year.
Meanwhile, local officials in several other large school districts across the country that announced plans to reopen fully at the end of the summer have also expressed growing concern about the added costs to make their schools compliant with the measures that the CDC guidelines are likely to require.
According to the national School Superintendents Association (AASA), an average-size school district with eight schools and 3,700 students will need to spend an additional $1.8 million during the 2020-21 school year to meet guideline requirements, representing 3 to 4 percent of a typical district’s annual budget. With more than 13,000 school districts in the United States, the total amount of additional federal money needed adds up quickly.
MORE FEDERAL MONEY NEEDED TO REOPEN SCHOOLS
House Democrats passed a bill in May that included aid for the nation’s public schools. Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that he and fellow Democrat Senator Pat Murray of Washington are supporting a bill that would provide an additional $175 billion for local K-12 schools across the country in the next relief package to help cover the added cost of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies.
Congressional Republicans also say they support more aid for local school systems, but have not mentioned any specific amount. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that he is open to a “final” relief bill that would cover some of the expenses of opening schools safely. “We can’t get back to normal if the kids are not back in school.” he added.
The first federal relief package passed in March dedicated $13.5 billion to K-12 education—less than 1 percent of the total amount of stimulus money provided. But public education experts estimate that school districts will need hundreds of billions of dollars to cover the widening gap between the rapid decline in their tax revenues caused by the impact of the virus on their local economies and the huge cost of fully retrofitting their schools with the installation of physical barriers in common areas, as well as more frequent cleanings and daily health checks for students and school staff.
When American public schools were locked down this spring due to the initial outbreak, school officials tried to compensate by offering their students virtual classrooms. While they worked for some students, and allowed others to at least continue to learn, a significant percentage of students simply dropped out. Boston public schools reported that about 20 percent of their students never logged in. In Los Angeles, one-third of virtual high school students never participated, and in Washington, DC, local school officials gave up and terminated the school year three weeks early. Even worse, students from disadvantaged family backgrounds fell even further behind their peers while their schools were closed.
Many teachers and parents fear that their current tight budgets will tempt school district officials to cut corners on virus safety measures, making their school reopening plans unsafe—unless Congress comes through with the promised new aid package by the end of this summer.
Teachers union officials have also expressed concern that their school districts do not have enough money to retrofit their school buildings with ventilation and air filtration systems needed to prevent a buildup of virus-bearing aerosol droplets.
NEED FOR MORE CREATIVE SOLUTIONS
More federal money for local public schools will not be enough, by itself, to successfully reopen them. If social distancing requirements dictate that classrooms can now serve only half as many students as before the virus outbreak, schools will need twice as much classroom space. Some of it can be created by repurposing gyms and cafeterias, but not enough to serve all their previous students within their old buildings.
If school district officials take as their priority fully reopening their schools to provide in-person classes for all their students, they will need to start thinking outside the box—in this case, outside their existing school buildings. Until permanent new school facilities can be completed, classes could be held outside or in tents, before the cold winter weather sets in. Another bonus, according to scientists, is that classes held outdoors do not need to enforce full social distancing guidelines to lower virus transmission risks. In Denmark, when the virus first hit during the spring months this year, schools held classes on playgrounds, in public parks and in the national soccer stadium.
But makeshift outdoor locations are just a partial and temporary solution. Students will still need access to bathrooms and educational equipment, including computers, which will need to be stored inside, protected from the elements.
Dr. Grant Rivera, the superintendent for Marietta City Schools in Georgia, said his teachers can ask to go on leave if they are uncomfortable returning to physical classrooms, but they might not receive full pay and will not be given the opportunity to work from home. The teachers conducting his district’s remote learning program, which any family may choose as an option for their children, will be selected exclusively from those who are willing to return to school and who have also demonstrated their proficiency in online instruction.
Rivera said that his school system, which is preparing to reopen on Aug. 4 with a full five-day-a-week class schedule for all its students, will spend $200,000 to install desk partitions in classrooms where it will be impossible for students and teachers to stay six feet apart, distribute the masks which will be required for teachers and students, and add an employee to assist with contact tracing of those who become infected. He has requested a $2.9 million county budget increase for his district this year, in addition to any federal aid and private donations.
FEARS OF A NATIONWIDE TEACHER SHORTAGE
Local school districts are also expected to face a severe teacher shortage this fall because, nationwide, more than a quarter of the public school teachers over the age of 50 have a heightened risk from a coronavirus infection. Back in May, even President Trump, who has been insisting that schools reopen as soon as possible, said that teachers over the age of 60, “should not be teaching school for a while, and everybody would understand that fully.”
The New York Times reports that many teachers who fear that their health will be at risk have signed a pledge refusing to return to their classrooms until their local new case rate falls to close to zero. Some local teachers’ unions are demanding additional safeguards against infection, such as sharply reduced class sizes and regular testing of all staff and students for the virus, which the current CDC guidelines do not require.
A national survey of teachers taken in May showed that 25% of those over the age of 55 said that they would quit if their schools reopen this fall. Of parents surveyed at that time, 59% expressed interest in keeping their children at home this fall, relying on remote learning or home schooling rather than sending them back to their previous schools.
Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) joined two national teachers’ unions to release a statement saying, “Schools in areas with high levels of Covid-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.”
The AAP recommends that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” Schools, it says, “should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a six-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.
“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented,” the group pointed out, “and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits, as well as child and adolescent physical. . . abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality.”
WHITE HOUSE TASK FORCE BACK IN ACTION
At the White House coronavirus task force briefing for the media, the first in several weeks, Vice President Pence said the new CDC recommendations for school reopening, which have been under development for several weeks, would shortly be released as “five different documents that will be giving even more clarity on the guidance going forward.”
The vice president added that the administration would seek “a strong incentive” for states to fully reopen their schools when Congress takes up the next round of emergency relief funding later this month.
Pence appeared at the briefing alongside Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the CDC; Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator; and Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education. Notably absent from the briefing was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who has sounded the alarm over the recent spike in new infections, and contradicted the president’s attempts to reassure the public that the outbreak is under control.
Dr. Redfield said, “It’s absolutely essential that we get our kids back into classrooms for in-person learning. We can’t let our kids fall behind academically, but it’s important that the American people remember that for children that have mental health issues, for special needs children, for nutrition, for children in communities facing persistent poverty, the school is the place where they receive all those services. . .
“Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools should reopen—it’s simply a matter of how. They must fully open and they must be fully operational, and how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.”
Redfield added that while his agency is concerned about the possible spread of the virus to older parents and grandparents of schoolchildren, “I want to make it very clear that what is not the intent of CDC’s guidelines is to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed. We’re prepared to work with each school, each jurisdiction, to help them use the different strategies that we propose that help do this safely so they come up with the optimal strategy for those schools.”
Dr. Birx reported that the current estimated mortality rate for those 25 and younger who have contracted the virus is less than a tenth of one percent, as long as they are otherwise healthy, but cautioned there was much to learn about how young people react to the disease. Recent studies indicate that child patients are less vulnerable to a deadly immune system overreaction to the virus known as a cytokine storm, responsible for a significant percentage of deaths in older patients. But a very small percentage of children infected with Covid-19 and then recovered developed the potentially deadly Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, also known as MIS-C. It attacks blood vessels rather than the respiratory system, which is usually the first target of the coronavirus.
However, according to Bush-era Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, shutting schools this spring has done much more damage to the mental, physical and social health of younger students across the nation than the virus has. Bennett noted that 186 children died from the common flu in the US last year, but only a handful of the 200 or so children diagnosed with MIS-C in the US so far this year have died.
SECRETARY DEVOS WANTS STUDENTS TO CATCH UP
In an interview with Fox News over the weekend, Education Secretary DeVos reiterated Trump’s threat to withhold federal aid from school districts which do not reopen this fall.
“Parents are expecting that this fall, their kids are going to have a full-time experience with their learning, and we need to follow through on that promise. . . They’ve fallen behind this spring; we need to ensure they’re back in a classroom situation wherever possible and whenever possible, and fully functioning, fully learning. . .
“American investment in education is a promise to students and their families. If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds,” DeVos said.
“We know that schools across the country look very different and that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to everything,” the Education Secretary said. She acknowledged that in regions “where there are [infection] hot spots in the future. . . of course that has to be dealt with differently,” but she also recalled that “the CDC never recommended that schools close in the first place,” when Mayor de Blasio reacted to the first spike in cases in New York City by closing its public schools in March.
DeVos also referred to the consensus among experts that many children suffered from mental, emotional and social issues because they were not in school. While stuck at home, they also missed the medical care they would have received from school nurses, screening for signs of abuse and neglect, and the nutritious school meals they were served every school day.
In an interview on CNN, Devos said, “Schools should do what’s right on the ground at that time for their students and for their situation. . . The CDC guidelines are just that—meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation.”
Because DeVos has been an outspoken advocate for federal tuition vouchers to give parents the option to send their children to private or parochial schools as an alternative to the failed public schools in their communities, she has been a favorite target for the public school teachers’ unions and the Democrat officials those unions support.
On CNN, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned DeVos’ remarks in favor of schools reopening this fall as “malfeasance and dereliction of duty.” She also said that the “president and his administration are messing with the health of our children. We all want our children to go back to school, parents do and children do. But they must go back safely.”
Pelosi also said that she wants the CDC guidelines for school reopenings to be made mandatory nationwide, and deny governors and local officials the leeway to adjust them to fit the local conditions of the outbreak.
DETAILS OF DE BLASIO’S NEW YORK SCHOOL REOPENING PLAN
In New York City, classroom schedules for each reopening public school will be determined by the school principal, based upon how many families decide to send their children back to their school, and the total student capacity of the school building while observing CDC social distancing guidelines.
According to Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, the typical classroom will serve between 9 to 12 students, to accommodate social distancing, compared to a typical pre-pandemic class size of around 30 children. The wearing of masks and frequent handwashing will also be mandatory for all students and school staff. Public school parents could also choose the option of continuing remote learning only for their children this fall.
But the de Blasio-Carranza school reopening plan has already drawn criticism from five members of the New York City Council. Councilmen Joseph Borelli (R-Staten Island), Bob Holden (D-Queens), Steven Matteo (R-Staten Island), Peter Koo (D-Queens), and Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) have signed a letter calling the reopening plan “unacceptable.” It recommends that the money being spent on the plan be used instead to fund tuition vouchers enabling parents to send their children to any school in the city, including yeshivos, that will offer full-time student classroom instruction.
The letter says that, “Working families should not be forced to pay taxes to fund a public-school system that is not providing full-time public school, and pay for the cost of (additional) school or child-care on top of it through no fault of their own.”
“If you’re a family where every adult has to work,” Councilman Borelli told reporters, “this [de Blasio school] reopening plan is as good as a kick in the shin.”
NYC STUDENT BUS TRANSPORTATION PLANS IN LIMBO
Mayor de Blasio has yet to release plans for the transportation of 90,000 students—aside from those with special needs—who live too far away from their schools to walk back and forth on the days they are scheduled to attend school.
Traditionally, the Department of Education provides busing to students of all schools in the city from kindergarten through second grade who live more than a half-mile from their school, and for those in third through sixth grade who live more than a mile away. Those in grades seven and up are offered MetroCards. But so far, the DOE refused to respond to parent inquiries about its student transportation plans for the fall.
In addition, De Blasio’s “blended” classroom and remote learning scheme will be a problem for families which rely on both parents working full time, because it will require them to hire a day care worker, or to stay home from work on school days when their child is not physically attending school.
The only public schools which will reopen for all their students every weekday will be those serving children with special needs, whose Special Education classrooms already have very small class sizes.
TEACHERS’ UNION AND BUSINESS LEADERS OPPOSE DE BLASIO’S PLAN
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Solidarity Caucus, representing the city’s 75,000 public school teachers, condemned de Blasio’s reopening plan because its “inconsistent and chaotic rotation between in school and remote learning is a recipe for further disintegration of our students’ cognitive and social development.”
It stated that “parents who do not have the option of working from home or are essential workers must be given viable and safe solutions for their child’s care. Remote learning may not be the best solution, as parents cannot effectively work from home while simultaneously supervising their children’s education.”
Business leaders also noted that the critical shortage of child care workers could prevent parents from returning to their former full-time jobs, delaying the city’s economic recovery.
While white collar employees who continued working from home during the pandemic might have the flexibility to continue managing their child care situation, that is not the case for many lower-income families and essential workers who must leave their homes to earn a living.
FOREIGN EXCHANGE STUDENTS MAY BE EXPELLED
College age students are more vulnerable to the virus than younger children, though most who are otherwise healthy will recover from an infection with only mild or no symptoms. Nevertheless, several major colleges and universities, including Harvard and MIT, have announced they will be offering remote learning sessions exclusively for their students during the upcoming fall semester. This should not pose a problem for their students who are US citizens or who have permanent US residence status.
Last week, the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced that foreign students will be permitted to stay in this country only as long as they are physically attending classes at their schools here. Several universities immediately responded by announcing that they would sue in court to overturn the new rule and restore the guidelines in effect for foreign students this past spring, which permitted them to stay here without physically attending classes.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration rescinded that policy, a move welcomed by the 1 million international students in the United States.
TIME TO PUT THE NEEDS OF SCHOOL CHILDREN FIRST
Unfortunately, the educational needs of America’s students are being neglected in favor of partisan political considerations in the current debate over reopening the country’s schools this fall. Another casualty in this debate is respect for the new findings of medical science about the virus since it first emerged from China six months ago to kill more than half a million people worldwide so far.
We now know that the virus is far less dangerous to young children than older adults, which should be having more influence over the decision about whether this country’s schools can be safely reopened at this time.
But aside from the threat to public health and the massive loss of life due to the virus, another tragedy has been the deliberate, cynical sacrifice of these concerns to partisan political objectives, by both sides, in the runup to the presidential election in November.