The Morning Jolt

U.S.

How to Handle School Reopenings

An empty classroom at Kent Middle School in Kentfield, Calif., on April 1 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

What you need to know today: the thorny issues that have to be worked out to open the doors of America’s schools this autumn, checking in on the efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine, and an exasperated cry for clarity.

If We Want to Reopen School Doors in the Fall, We Have to Do a Lot of Homework

Before we dive into the debate about whether schools should open their doors to in-person schooling this autumn, we need to agree on certain premises:

  • The continued absence of in-person schooling is having bad effects — and in some cases, really bad effects — on our children and must end as soon as possible.
  • The danger of the coronavirus to children is less than the danger to adults, but that does not mean there is no danger; a small percentage of children develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Most have recovered, but not all.
  • Children can carry the virus and unknowingly spread it to any adults they encounter; schools employ quite a few adults — teachers, principals, administrative staff, janitors — some of whom are in high-risk categories.

In-person schooling during a pandemic, with a virus that appears to have mutated and become more contagious, is going to be tricky. But it is not impossible. Indeed, other countries have managed to do it:

By early June, more than 20 countries had done just that. (Some others, including Taiwan, Nicaragua, and Sweden, never closed their schools.) It was a vast, uncontrolled experiment.

Some schools imposed strict limits on contact between children, while others let them play freely. Some required masks, while others made them optional. Some closed temporarily if just one student was diagnosed with COVID-19; others stayed open even when multiple children or staff were affected, sending only ill people and direct contacts into quarantine.

When Science looked at reopening strategies from South Africa to Finland to Israel, some encouraging patterns emerged. Together, they suggest a combination of keeping student groups small and requiring masks and some social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe, and that younger children rarely spread the virus to one another or bring it home.

“Outbreaks in schools are inevitable,” says Otto Helve, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. “But there is good news.” So far, with some changes to schools’ daily routines, he says, the benefits of attending school seem to outweigh the risks — at least where community infection rates are low and officials are standing by to identify and isolate cases and close contacts.

The tools in the toolbox are clear. Masks. Frequent handwashing and use of hand sanitizer. Canceling any assemblies or gatherings in large groups. Regular disinfecting of classrooms and common areas. Hold some classes outdoors where possible. Some schools may want to divide the student body into groups and send them to school on alternating days, reducing any potential exposure.

Yesterday the sharp PoliMath wrote a much-needed column laying out that pandemic decisions inevitably involve cost–benefit analysis — “as we open our way back out, we start by picking options that slowly increase the risk while still maximizing the value.” He notes that one of the reason our arguments about the restrictions get so heated is that different people value different activities. Segments of society who see, say, the George Floyd protests as high-value and thus worth the risk of further spread may not feel the same about church services, and vice versa. “If we find something valuable (such as worship or protesting) then we are incentivized to downplay the risks so that our activity is easier to justify. But others can see us downplaying that risk and they feel this is unfair to their preferred high-value activity.”

(Someone should have held an open-air church service to pray for justice and racial reconciliation after Floyd’s death, and watched every partisan freeze in indecision, trying to figure out whether they should denounce the gathering as reckless or not. Had the Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn held a large gathering in public outdoors in honor of Floyd, we would see sparks coming from the twitching head of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio as his brain short-circuited trying to work out the conflicting impulses.)

Hopefully we all agree that sending kids to school is extremely high in value. The distance-learning programs that were put together on the fly this past spring were . . . well, failures. Many school administrators, teachers, parents, and kids tried their best, but a lot of adults have a hard time paying attention and absorbing information through hours and hours of Zoom and Skype meetings, so it’s unreasonable to expect kids to be able to do that. Not educating our children from mid-March to May or June of this year was bad, but survivable. Trying to continue this jury-rigged substandard online substitute into 2021 will be a catastrophe.

And this is ignoring the fact that until kids are in schools, parents can’t really work at their jobs. (Joe Biden has to tread carefully here. The Democratic nominee may believe that because Trump is now vocally pushing for schools to reopen, he should paint Trump as unrealistic and reckless, and stand with wary teacher’s unions and advocate keeping schools closed until there’s a vaccine. He would be calling for a course of action many parents would find unacceptable.)

We may conclude that educating our children is so valuable that it requires us to accept risks that were unacceptable back in the spring. Right now, advocates of reopening have some really compelling points — is reopening a school more or less dangerous than keeping a supermarket or pharmacy open? Working in an Amazon warehouse? A meatpacking plant?

The president of my local teacher’s union thinks there should not be in-person schooling until there’s a vaccine.

Let’s check in on that vaccine development, shall we?

The Vaccine Progress Is Good, but That Doesn’t Mean the Wait Isn’t Considerable

The news that the federal government has paid nearly $4 billion to six companies working on vaccines might lead some to believe that a vaccine is imminent. The short answer is: We don’t know. Best-case scenario, vaccines that work start rolling off the assembly line this fall — but we’re more likely to see them later, and it’s still going to take a while to produce enough doses for everyone in the country who needs one. And we have no guarantee of the best-case scenario.

At the most basic level, all vaccine efforts operate on the same principle: introducing something into the body that is either a much-weakened version of the pathogen or biologically similar enough to the pathogen to spur the body to start making antibodies to fight off the invader — so that when the body encounters the real thing, the white blood cells fight like the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge instead of the Americans at Pearl Harbor.

Because the stakes of the ongoing battle against SARS-CoV-2 are so high, the current effort to produce a vaccine is working a little differently. The U.S. is paying companies such as Novavax to “begin manufacturing the vaccines before the company concludes late-stage clinical trials, expected by the end of the year.” At first glance, it might seem a bit crazy to start mass-producing a vaccine before anyone knows if it works. But if the vaccine does work, then the company and the country will have a lot of doses ready to go. The Times reports that under the new contract, Novavax “would ensure that 100 million doses — enough for 50 million people to receive an initial shot and a booster — are delivered by the first quarter of 2021.”

Those of you who can do math can figure out that’s about 15 percent of the country by next March.

On the other side of the world, at the end of June, the Chinese government announced their military academy teamed up with CanSino Biologics to create a vaccine that works. In some alternate reality where statements of the Chinese government can be trusted, this is wonderful news. We can feel more reassured once we know this new vaccine is nothing like the ten million defective tests and personal protective equipment that China exported in the first months of the pandemic.

There are a lot of vaccine research efforts going on around the world — at least 155, ranging from preclinical to phase-three large-scale testing. A Maryland man who participated in a trial by Pfizer thinks he may be the first person to be successfully vaccinated, describing a slight reaction after his second dose, making him think he didn’t receive a placebo. If Pfizer’s works, they could have 100 million doses by the end of the year.

Those of you who can do math can figure out that’s a bit less than a third of country by January.

For some reason, some people think I’m excessively pessimistic or offering “panic porn.” It will probably not surprise you that I think those people are [EDITOR’S NOTE: LONG PROFANE ENRAGED DIATRIBE REMOVED] incorrect. With this many bright minds around the world working on a vaccine, I think the odds are good that we get a vaccine and that it probably gets discovered, manufactured, and distributed to the public, both in the United States and around the world, in record time. (Keep in mind, the record is four years.)

Any approach to anything in American life that says “wait until there’s a vaccine” is declaring that activity to be canceled until probably, at the earliest, the middle of 2021 — maybe the end of 2021. (And this is separate from the question of the 27 percent or so of Americans who say they’re not sure they’re willing to get vaccinated.)

Are teachers’ unions really comfortable with a call for online-only learning well into next year?

ADDENDUM: Sometimes exasperation is the trigger for great clarity, as Frederick deBoer calls for, if nothing else, a more honest debate:

Think for a minute and consider: what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left? There is literally no specific instance discussed in that open letter, no real-world incident about which there might be specific and tangible controversy. So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe our political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?

Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.

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