Stop Pretending Schools Can Open Safely
But no losses should be acceptable when they are entirely avoidable. By now, we know enough about the risks of the coronavirus to realize that simply declaring that schools are safe is an exercise in fantasy. There are some things public health experts agree present extraordinarily high levels of risk, and schools combine several of them. The administration is taking advantage of parents’ understandable eagerness to get kids back to school to push ahead with its program to pretend everything with the pandemic is fine. The result is a new movement to ignore reality, pretend schools present no risk and imagine that the virus will magically conform to our needs by Labor Day — while utterly disregarding the moral implications of putting teachers, administrators and other school employees in danger.
The arguments for reopening are obvious, and as the mother of a 5-year-old, I understand them viscerally: Children need to learn, and isolation is not good for their mental health. People also need to return to work, and many can only do that if their children are in school or they have some other safe place for them to be during the day.
At the same time, there is no conceivable way to reopen all schools safely. Discussion about school safety has been largely centered around the ostensibly low transmission rates of covid-19 for children, as if children attend school in an adult-free vacuum. Where the lives of school workers, teachers and administrators are taken into consideration at all, people argue that they’re acceptable losses — because we overwhelmingly conflate schooling with child care, and without school, how will anyone go back to work and make a living?
A failure to confront these contradictions, on the part of policymakers and a public that understandably wants normalcy and education for their children, has led to a callousness about stakes for the people putting themselves at risk. No, we cannot prevent every covid-19 death. (That’s obvious enough by now.) But under the circumstances, and given how little we’ve prepared, the casualties are going to be higher than the government is suggesting, and they were, in many cases, entirely avoidable.
Public health experts agree that the highest risk venue for transmission is an indoor setting with poor ventilation, where people are interacting for an extended period of time. The risk of transmission indoors is an estimated 19 times higher than it is outdoors. This is a well-understood consensus, and it’s why many states still aren’t allowing indoor dining or reopening movie theaters.
“Indoor setting with poor ventilation” describes many, many school environments. The American Lung Association notes that schools often have four times as many people in a given space as in a standard office building. A recent Government Accountability Office report indicates that 41 percent of schools need to update their HVAC systems. Many classrooms are already crowded. And education professionals do not interact with each other or children for brief periods of time — say the time it takes to check out of a grocery store line. The average school day in America is 6½ hours long.
A major claim among the “all schools must open” crowd is that transmission among children under 10 is low — but we know it’s not zero. A study in South Korea this week found that children ages 10 to 19 are just as likely to spread the virus as adults. In any case, schools are not run by students. They are run by adults, who are vulnerable to coronavirus and may transmit it to their own family members. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, as many as 1 in 4 teachers is at higher risk of serious illness if they get covid-19. In 2018, 29 percent of public school teachers were over 50, and 8 percent were over 60. In private schools, the percentage of teachers over 60 was even higher: 15 percent.
Teachers and school employees who have underlying risks may choose not to go back to school at all, if they can afford it, which could leave us with a national shortage of educational professionals even before people start to get sick (or die) and leave their classrooms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out guidelines for reopening schools in May, which prompted the White House to attack the agency this month. The CDC defines the lowest-risk scenario as “virtual-only” education. The highest risk: “Full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.”
That is exactly what many schools will face in the fall. Few schools have the facilities to ensure adequate spacing. (The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends a density of 113 square feet per person under covid conditions; by comparison, pre-pandemic state requirements in New York are between 17 and 40 square feet per person, depending on the type of classroom.) In school districts where teachers are buying their own school supplies because they’re underfunded, it strains credulity that extra materials for public health, not to mention personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, will magically materialize. And good luck keeping small children from mixing in between classes and activities, particularly when a large part of the rationale for sending them back in the first place is so that they can interact socially with each other.
And we are not just talking about deaths from the virus. We increasingly know that the consequences of nonfatal covid-19 infections can be long-term, permanent and not limited to patients’ respiratory systems. And yet, even people who think the virus is extraordinarily dangerous and not “just like the flu” will frame the school debate in terms of deaths, the way Parson did in Missouri, with the assumption that adults and children who get it will mostly be fine. As if it’s a temporary inconvenience. The president did this Sunday, arguing that schools should open in New Jersey because only “one person below the age of 18 died in the state of New Jersey during all of this.” (The state health department reports that two died — both under age 5.)
The reality is that none of us would be in this situation if we had a competent federal response and a coordinated state and local response. “We know that other countries around the world have been able to reopen their schools, and have done so successfully and safely,” DeVos told Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace earlier this month. But every single country she’s talking about has done so via protocols that, collectively, constitute a litany of America’s failures in responding to covid-19. Other countries controlled the virus before they opened their schools back up. Here, Trump only appeared in public in a mask this month; we still have shortages of protective equipment; tests take more than a week to yield results; and we are nowhere near developing a national tracking and tracing program.
We could have done what other developed democracies have, and things could, indeed, have been relatively normal by now, the way they are in New Zealand and much of Europe. The government could have paid people to stay home long enough to set up centralized testing and tracing programs, educated the public about the importance of social distancing measures and mask usage, and used the time to ramp up manufacturing of PPE and testing supplies and redesign schools, office buildings and commercial spaces with an eye toward safety. Instead, we got means-tested one-time $1,200 checks and a limited loan program that was difficult to navigate for truly small businesses, and insufficient all the way around. Nothing has been done to backstop mortgage holders and renters, except to ban evictions temporarily, and enforcement has been uneven. No wonder opening schools again looks like something we can’t do without: No one’s done anything to ease the pandemic’s economic pressure.
I am sympathetic, in particular, to the plight of working-class school employees because my own mother was the janitor at the school I attended, and later, a “lunch lady” in the cafeteria. My 5-year-old will probably go back to in-person classes at his kindergarten in the fall. Also in the fall, I am expected to teach graduate students in person at New York University as an adjunct professor, which I’d normally do in a small, stuffy conference room with poor circulation, with roughly 15 students. I don’t believe these scenarios are safe for me or my child, but I also don’t believe we’re going to have much choice about it.
This did not have to happen. In other countries, schools have been able to reopen safely because the government was willing to economically backstop workers and businesses long enough to get the virus under control, and people were not forced to put their own lives and the lives of their children at risk from a place of sheer desperation. Here, our federal response has been led largely by amateurs marked by incompetence, failure and corruption. And while the administration has flailed, Congress has mostly left American families to fend for themselves.
Miserly Republicans obsessed over the idea that an economic backstop would enable a lazy populace to avoid work and, exhibiting total ambivalence about the suffering and death that result, refused to lead. They shot down more reasonable relief packages, framing them as excessive, even though similar policies in economically comparable liberal democracies have proven effective. Democratic deficit hawks in the House enabled this further by failing to be aggressive enough with early proposals, and agreeing to pass legislation with Republicans that didn’t prioritize access to direct relief payments, which excluded many Americans who are essential workers and families with mixed immigration status, capped paycheck protection programs and didn’t provide state and local aid for revenue shortfalls caused by the coronavirus, which probably precipitated premature reopenings.
In a private situation between individuals, this kind of blatant disregard for consequences and willful refusal to use available resources might be cast as negligent homicide. It’s not inconceivable that if things get much worse, that is how history will view it: state-sponsored destruction via willful, callous indifference. Without some urgent and quick interventions, our schools are another wave of covid-19 tragedies waiting to happen, and our response cannot be powered by the same delusions that landed us here in the first place — that the toll will not be that high; that the truly vulnerable are few; that we can have safety without economic security.
The highest risks are known, obvious and reasonably well-understood, and the government has tools at its disposal to mitigate them, and to solve the problem of poverty and economic desperation that its failures so far have exacerbated, and in some cases, created. Families and school employees should not be asked to pay for its negligence, and losses that can be avoided should not be acceptable.
Elizabeth Spiers is the chief executive of the Insurrection, a progressive digital messaging firm.
Co-published with the Washington Post.