Now, in mid-July, America is suddenly waking up to the need to think about how COVID-19 will affect the institutions that serve children come August and September. The press is finally reporting that opening public schools for over 50 million young people is going to be complex, difficult and expensive, and that nobody is quite sure how to do it. Now that we are paying attention, we can see that the fall is going to be difficult in all sorts of ways—for children, for parents, for educators, and for the economy. But for President Donald Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos, it’s very simple: Schools should open on time, five days a week. The Trump administration has even threatened to punish schools that don’t reopen on time by withholding federal funds.
On Friday, NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg described what she has learned in interviews with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “Two weeks ago, I asked Randi Weingarten… what a functioning Department of Education would be doing to prepare the country to reopen schools in the fall. ‘A functioning Department of Education would have been getting groups of superintendents and principals and unions and others together from the middle of March,’ she told me… By mid-April it would have convened experts to figure out how to reopen schools safely, and offered grants to schools trying different models… ‘None of that has happened… Zero.’ When I spoke to Weingarten again on Thursday, she wasn’t worried that Trump and DeVos would be able to follow through on their threats; they can’t redirect the funds without Congress. But with their crude attempts at coercion, they’ve politicized school reopening just as Trump politicized mask-wearing and hydroxychloroquine. ‘The threats are empty, but the distrust they have caused is not,’ Weingarten said.”
Most of us don’t spend time considering the complexity of the daily operation of institutions that serve hundreds, sometimes thousands of students. On Saturday, however, the Cleveland Plain Dealer detailed just one set of challenges—providing safe school bus transportation: “School buses—without proper precautions—could become hives of infection allowing for easy spread of coronavirus. ‘It’s a very enclosed area with a lot of people, and that’s when we tend to get in trouble with this disease,’ said Dr. Claudia Hoyen, director of infection control at… Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.” Here are the precautions Dr. Hoyen has been sharing with school personnel in the Cleveland area: “One child per seat… and then additional spacing so that not every seat is being used. Opening windows when weather permits to improve circulation. Keeping the buses clean and sanitized… Installing plastic barriers to separate the driver from the riders… Giving riders assigned seats so that if a child does become sick, the spread of the virus should be limited. Having children wear masks.. Having the driver remind children to stay in their seats and to not scream, but allow them to talk.’… All these cautions are one of the reasons many school districts are planning to stagger schedules and bring only a percentage of children to school on a given day. But imagine the added challenges for adolescents in New York City, where, with a universal public school choice program in place for middle and high schoolers, many adolescents regularly get to school on the subway.
On Friday evening, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler described the impracticality of Betsy DeVos’s command that all children be in school, in person, five days a week come fall. Meckler reports that, ironically, even one of Betsy DeVos’s favorite charter school chains can’t make full time, in-person schooling happen: “(S)chool systems across the country have already decided on models where students learn from home part of the time… Like many other systems, Success Academy Charter Schools… in New York City says it cannot safely reopen with all children in the building because there is not enough room to keep them apart. ‘There’s not enough space,’ said Ann Powell, a spokesperson for Success Academy. ‘It’s hard to practice social distancing… unless you have a lot of empty classrooms to spare.’… Many schools face the same problem, which is why districts across the country have announced hybrid plans, where students will be in schools some days and learning from home on others.” The Centers for Disease Control has recommended guidelines for safely opening schools, “But Trump attacked those guidelines this week, calling them on Twitter, ‘very tough & expensive’ and demanding ‘very impractical things.'”
Another NY Times report on Friday explains why these hybrid plans are neither going to meet the President’s expectations nor to be workable for families: “Public school parents will not learn what days their children can attend school until August, so it will be difficult for working families to let their employers know before late summer when they can show up in person. Working parents have expressed confusion and anxiety about the prospect of a part-time return to schools without a child care plan…’There’s a child care crisis coming,’ said Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union, which represents about 75,000 classroom teachers. Thousands of teachers who have spent months juggling remote learning for their students and their own children will now have to figure out how to return to school full time while their children go back only a few days a week.”
On Friday, the NY Times‘ Eileen Sullivan and Erica Green obtained the Centers for Disease Control document which President Trump and Betsy DeVos have criticized as too expensive and impractical. In the document the CDC staff examine several plans school districts have developed to guide their reopening: “(T)he material is critical of ‘noticeable gaps’ in all of the K-12 reopening plans it reviewed, though it identified Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma and Minnesota as having the most detailed,” Sullivan and Green quote from the CDC document: “While many jurisdictions and districts mention symptom screening, very few include information as to the response or course of action they would take if student/faculty/staff are found to have symptoms, nor have they clearly identified which symptoms they will include in their screening… In addition, few plans include information regarding school closure in the event of positive tests in the school community.” The reporters add that the CDC’s “suggestions for mitigating the risk of school reopenings would be expensive and difficult for many districts, like broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher.”
Two detailed news analyses published over the weekend examine what our political leaders ought to have learned from observing the reopening of schools in other societies around the world. These reports are detailed, and I encourage you to read them both.
In the first, NY Times science reporters Pam Belluck, Apoorva Mandavilli and Benedict Carey summarize some of what others have observed so far: “No nation has tried to send children back to school with the virus raging at levels like America’s, and the scientific research about transmission in classrooms is limited. The World Health Organization has now concluded that the virus is airborne in crowded, indoor spaces with poor ventilation, a description that fits many American schools… Data from around the world clearly shows that children are far less likely to become seriously ill from the coronavirus than adults. But there are big unanswered questions, including how often children become infected and what role they play in transmitting the virus. Some research suggests younger children are less likely to infect other people than teenagers are, which would make opening elementary schools less risky than high schools, but the evidence is not conclusive.”
In the second, a Washington Post reporter on Europe, Michael Birnbaum examines how schools organized for reopening and what happened across Europe, in Israel, and in Canada: “(P)ublic health officials and researchers caution that most school reopenings are in their early stages. Much remains unknown about the interaction between children, schools and the virus. And parents and teachers, especially in Europe, have been vocal about their concerns… While documented cases of younger students transmitting the virus to their classmates or to adults so far appear rare, there is enduring worry about the susceptibility of teens, college-age students and their teachers. And, especially in communities where the virus is still circulating widely, elaborate and expensive measures may be necessary to avoid shutting down entire schools each time a student tests positive. Arnaud Fontanet, head of the Epidemiology of Emerging Diseases unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, said he ‘gladly’ sent his four teenagers back when French schools reopened on a voluntary basis in mid-May. But he emphasized that was only because ‘the virus is not too much circulating in France.'”
In a column for USA Today at the end of last week, the president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia worries about the difficulty of protecting students and teachers in already struggling public schools where staff shortages linger from the economic recession a decade ago: “No one wants to welcome students back to classrooms more than America’s educators. We know that nothing can replace the magic of a student’s curiosity when they are able to learn alongside their peers from a teacher who has dedicated her life to the success of other people’s children. But the Trump administration’s plan is appallingly reckless… The vast majority of our schools still have not returned to funding levels from before the 2008 financial crisis, when more than 300,000 school employees lost their jobs as states decided to balance their budgets on the backs of our students. Now we face a revenue crisis that experts project will be worse, before we begin to discuss the additional funding needs related to COVID-19, such as personal protective equipment, class sizes conducive to social distancing, and ensuring social and emotional needs are met—particularly in Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. As a sixth-grade teacher from Utah, I’ve taught 39 students in a classroom with one window. I’ve toured schools in Louisiana where ‘temporary’ portable buildings erected after Hurricane Katrina still occupy the schools’ playgrounds and physical education fields… Safety must not be compromised.”