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The Fierce Urgency of Reopening Schools Now

Few affluent families are subjecting their children to Zoom sessions. Many other families don’t have a choice.
Students classroom

Imagine the worst conference call you’ve ever been on. Imagine staying on that call for six or seven hours, with only short breaks to relieve the monotony. Imagine that you are 16 years old or 12 or 9 and you have to pay attention because there will be a social studies quiz next week. Welcome to the dreary reality of remote schooling. For many students, a year of classroom learning has been sacrificed to the fickle gods of Zoom.

A cautious approach to reopening schools in the midst of a global pandemic is entirely reasonable. Schools, which are lax at enforcing personal hygiene to begin with, pack students into close quarters for hours at a time. Kids cough and sneeze and fart on each other. They sweat on each other in P.E. They are enthusiastic touchers and shovers and ticklers. Last spring, when the novel coronavirus and its means of transmission were still mysterious, a temporary school shutdown was a defensible precaution.

Since then, our understanding of the disease has become more sophisticated. We know that surface transmission is, at worst, a minor hazard, obviating the need for constant cleaning and decontamination. We know that airborne transmission in close quarters is a major risk and how to mitigate it. We know that only about 10 percent of those infected with COVID-19 transmit the disease to another person. We also know that young people are resistant to the disease and that schools are not focal points for community spread.

This last point is not idle speculation or amateur theorizing. Indeed, it might fairly be described as the scientific consensus. Yet despite a chorus of reassuring experts, a CDC announcement that schools can return to in-person learning if they enforce mask wearing and other safety measures, and a Biden Administration pledge to reopen most schools within 100 days, millions of students remain at home. 

The consequences of spending an entire school year online are likely to be felt for years to come. In Nevada, the New York Times has reported on a rash of teen suicides linked to remote learning. In China, a new study suggests that teenage obesity is on the rise because of the lockdowns and school closures. Student achievement has cratered at all levels of American education. Over the past several years, we’ve uncovered troubling links between excessive screen time and rising rates of teenage depression and suicide. In our haste to protect students’ and teachers’ physical wellbeing, we have thrown up a system that magnifies the worst features of online life.

These costs are particularly galling because of the obvious double standard. Most private schools remain open. Other parents with means have opted for homeschooling or private tutors. California Governor Gavin Newsom has been rightfully pilloried for keeping his kids in a private school while most California public schools remain closed. But Newsom is merely a high-profile parent in the pandemic’s two-tier educational system. Few affluent families are subjecting their children to the indignity of hour-long Zoom sessions. Many other families don’t have a choice.

If affluent and engaged parents withdraw from public schools, the pace of left-wing activism will likely accelerate. It is no accident that school closures have coincided with the end of admissions tests for elite public high schools in San Francisco and the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a renewed push to end public school admissions exams in New York City, and the absurd spectacle of San Francisco renaming its shuttered schools instead of reopening them. Engaged public school parents are a check on institutional radicalism because they demand accountability. If the lockdowns and school closures prompt more parents to flee the system for private alternatives, public schools will become more radical, more fixated on left-wing grievances, and more academically deficient. Oregon’s Department of Education is now matter-of-factly promoting the idea that asking students to “show their work” in math class is a form of white supremacy. Fewer engaged public school parents means fewer brakes on this type of institutional radicalism. 

Last December, a California public school teacher wrote a provocative piece for the Bellows arguing that the Covid lockdown was not just an overreaction, but a deliberate transfer of wealth engineered by political and economic elites. But there is no need to resort to conspiracies to understand our predicament. Crude and poorly targeted lockdown measures endure because, for a certain privileged segment of our population, they are basically tolerable. The affluent and educated work from home while their kids get private tutors or attend private schools. The high tech sector thrives and other businesses survive thanks to lockdown loopholes, exemptions, and subsidies. The situation isn’t ideal, exactly, but it does explain a certain lack of urgency to reopen public schools and get things back to normal.

Indeed, lack of urgency seems to be the defining feature of our response to the pandemic. Last winter, the CDC’s initial testing rollout was beset by delays and mistakes. Bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles have hamstrung the widespread adoption of rapid at-home testing. Despite the fact that it has been approved by the E.U. and given to millions of patients in the U.K., the FDA still hasn’t greenlit the AstraZeneca vaccine. Meanwhile, millions of doses are already being produced in Baltimore. It took nearly a year for our military to design, approve, and distribute a simple cloth face covering. Even in the face of an unprecedented global health crisis, our institutions cannot seem to muster any sense of urgency.

Lockdowns and school closures endure because they are tolerable for well-connected businesses and “knowledge economy” workers. They are tolerable for parents who can afford to send their kids to private school. They are tolerable for teachers’ unions, which are quite content to advocate for their most histrionic members instead of the students falling behind. They are tolerable for the Biden administration, which has quietly walked back its own school reopening goals to appease political allies.

In a recent message to parents, a San Francisco principal wrote that full reopening by fall was “highly unlikely.” He did, however, include a few tips for improving students’ remote learning experience. “At this time,” the message reads, “building a thriving online community is all we have to combat sadness, loneliness, and apathy. Please urge your student to engage with the camera whenever they can.” We shouldn’t be asking kids to “engage with the camera.” We should be putting them back where they belong—in school. 

Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.