Americans believe that schools are essential institutions. That’s why public schools absorb half of local government spending, and why the nation spends $14,000 per year on each child in K–12 public schools. Yet, even as the educational establishment insists its response to the pandemic has been heroic, one must ask: Do America’s educators truly think their work is essential?
Nearly a year after the nation’s schools slammed their doors last March, most children are still not back in classrooms at all. While exact figures are elusive, it seems that only about a third of students nationwide are attending school in-person each day.
The devastating consequences of this have long been evident. As early as last spring, it was clear that when isolated from their peers, students were increasingly susceptible to anxiety, depression, and mental-health emergencies. Children are social creatures, and month after month of isolation has imposed wrenching costs. The academic costs are hard to pin down, but the safest estimates are that most children are losing substantial learning — and, for the most vulnerable, the losses are massive.
With time, the consequences of school closure have only grown more striking. In Clark County, Nev., the nation’s fifth-largest school district, 18 students committed suicide last year between the time schools went remote and year’s end. The district’s alert system, which monitors student writing on district-issued iPads, has flagged more than 3,000 additional potential suicide risks. Clark County superintendent Jesus Jara said, “When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the COVID numbers we need to look at anymore.” He added, “We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.”
And hope there should be. After all, the scientific evidence is now compelling that schools are not significant sources of community spread. The international data have made this pretty clear for several months now, but recent studies out of Tulane, Michigan State, and the CDC have affirmed that masked, socially distanced, and responsible reopening is generally safe — even without vaccination.
Indeed, this week, three CDC officials observed in an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “the preponderance of evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring” and that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” In fact, there’s good reason to suspect that having kids in school, organized, occupied, and supervised rather than left to occupy themselves may ultimately serve to promote community health.
Moreover, after a rough start, vaccination is proceeding apace. The Biden administration has suggested that vaccination should be widely available by spring, and that the nation should be approaching herd immunity by summer.
These developments all seem pretty promising, no?
And yet the same educational officials who insist on the indispensability of schools as they demand additional aid seem intent on moving the goalposts when it comes to reopening. As the New York Times reported this week, “Some district officials have begun to say out loud what was previously unthinkable: that schools may not be operating normally for the 2021-2022 school year.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, head of one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, has explained that vaccination isn’t enough to assuage teachers’ doubts because, “We don’t know whether a vaccine stops transmissibility.”
Indeed, the teachers’ union president in Fairfax County, Va. — home to more than 150,000 students — has publicly opposed a five-day school week in the fall and argued that schools shouldn’t fully reopen until students are vaccinated. (Of course, no vaccine has been approved for youths under age 16, and it’s unlikely that kids will be vaccinated en masse before 2022, if at all, given COVID-19’s typically modest effect on them.) The head of Washington State’s largest teachers’ union has said that teacher vaccination is not “a guarantee that schools can and should open.” Union or district officials in cities including Chicago, Boston, and San Antonio have already suggested that a full fall reopening is too ambitious. Even education reformers who endorse reopening have suggested the need to plan for closures stretching into the 2021–2022 school year.
Florida’s Broward County, in response to a union lawsuit challenging the district’s decision to tell most teachers they can no longer work remotely, has illustrated how specious many union concerns about safe reopening may be. As Education Week reported this week, a simple scan of teachers’ Facebook pages enabled the district to document a raft of instances of remote teachers attending destination weddings, participating in political rallies, having cocktails in restaurants, visiting Disney, and taking beach vacations. As Stephanie Marchman, an attorney representing Broward, observed, “If individuals on remote assignment can go to a Biden rally or to Animal Kingdom or to a luncheon, they can safely return to in-person teaching.”
Meanwhile, parents and policy-makers seem inclined to cut schools inordinate amounts of slack. Education Next reported earlier this month that parents say that their kids aren’t learning much but still give their schools high marks. Meanwhile, just weeks after K–12 schools received $54 billion in federal COVID-19 aid, the Biden administration is urging Congress to earmark another $130 billion, all without any assurance that recipients will actually open their doors to kids.
So, which is it? Are schools essential or not? Are educators like the ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, and firefighters who have continued to show up for work every day to provide an indispensable service? If not — if public schools choose instead to fashion themselves as nonessential purveyors of uneven online content — then parents and policy-makers would perhaps do well to take them at their word and respond accordingly.