Up and down the West Coast, millions of children in some of the country’s largest cities have had no in-person education since last March. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, and myriad other cities, there is precious little evidence the public schools will be reopening for most kids before the summer holidays. Meanwhile, in many of those same cities, private schools have been providing in-person classes during much of the pandemic, and wealthier suburban public school districts are finalizing plans to reopen in the spring.
The result of this extraordinary shutdown is that low-income, special-needs, and ESL kids in the three coastal states—which pride themselves on their progressive politics—have been left behind. In refusing to go back to classrooms in these urban hubs, teachers’ unions increasingly risk a public backlash. And for the coastal governors, this is a political nightmare. For, in failing to knock heads together to get the teachers’ unions and school district administrations to come to agreements, and in not securing the funds to properly ventilate classrooms—or move them outdoors, in a region with weather hospitable to months of outdoor learning—and reduce class sizes, the three West Coast governors are, by default, abetting this tragedy.
When Donald Trump was in charge of the country and political action around the pandemic was so skewed by his mismanagement and the MAGA movement’s refusal to take public health seriously, it made sense for states and teachers’ unions to be extremely cautious about reopening school. For so many people, Trump and his inane approach to public health made everything black and white: Conservatives too often claimed, and acted as if, the pandemic was a big brouhaha over nothing; progressives were inclined to embrace any and all restrictive response aimed at slowing disease transmission.
Now, with the vaccines rolling out and the federal government working in lockstep with public health authorities, it makes more sense to inject nuance into the conversation, nowhere more so than when it comes to education.
It is an abdication of responsibility for teachers’ unions and district administrations to reject CDC guidelines on returning to schools over the coming months, and not prepare to reopen classrooms at the end of this academic year—or even the next academic year. And it is a political cop-out for governors to not prioritize funding to reopen in a speedy manner, and to not also be willing to take heat from the unions by pushing districts to reopen.
When I was a young journalist, in the early 1990s, I began covering the extraordinary societal experiment that was mass incarceration. Across the political spectrum, politicians embraced legislation aimed at increasing the number of people sentenced to prison, increasing the length of sentences, and making prison conditions ever more brutal. It was a combination of deterrence and retribution that had wide public support and the blessing of influential criminologists such as James Q. Wilson.
Sure, some tough-on-crime advocates, such as California Governor Pete Wilson, were demagoguing the issue for political advantage, playing on public anxieties in an era of high crime rates. But others had good intentions: They wanted to lower crime, make poor neighborhoods safer, and use the legislative and legal tools suggested by cutting-edge criminal justice theories—such as “broken windows” policing—to improve the lives of citizens.
And, on their own terms, they succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. Despite rising levels of violent crime in many big cities this pandemic year, murder rates remain a fraction of what they were in 1992, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Murders increased 25 percent in 2020 in Los Angeles over the previous year—but that still left the city with barely a quarter of the murders there in 1992. In the early 1990s, New York City saw nearly 2,500 murders a year. Last year, even with all the stresses of the pandemic and a sharp spike in violent crime, there were 447. (Chicago—a poster child for the increase in violent, gun-related crimes in recent years—is a partial exception, with 774 murders in 2020. But even that horrifying number was still well below the numbers of the early 1990s.) On a slew of other crime data, from property crimes to rape, the national numbers are far below the averages of the 1980s and early ’90s.
In other words, a zero-tolerance approach to crime, on crime-fighting terms alone, was a stunning policy success. Yet, at the same time, there’s now widespread agreement that the decades-long focus on mass incarceration created a host of other devastating problems—collateral damage that could have been anticipated. These ranged from the mass poverty, unemployment, and homelessness of ex-prisoners, to the school-to-prison pipeline in poor and especially black and brown neighborhoods, to a skewing of public investment toward law enforcement at the cost of job training, infrastructure, building new schools and universities, and so on. So success in one policy area created or exacerbated failures in other, equally important areas.
What is happening on the West Coast with schools and Covid-19 is, I fear, a version of that war on crime playing out all over again. The coronavirus will be with us, in one form or another, forever; it’s a respiratory disease, like tuberculosis. We can and we must tame it. We can and we must find ways to limit its transmission. We can and we must vaccinate as many people as possible. But, just like TB, it will probably still circulate despite our best efforts. Unless we are willing to abandon urban culture—to permanently shutter schools, museums, theaters, sports venues, and concert halls—we are going to have to learn to coexist with the novel coronavirus.
Zero tolerance made sense in the first year of the pandemic, just as it made some sense in the early 1990s to fight crime. But zero tolerance cannot be a viable long-term strategy when it comes to reopening schools and other vital public institutions.
Most big-city public schools on the West Coast have been shut for a year—though that hasn’t stopped the zealots on San Francisco’s school board from devoting vital time and energy to removing the name “Lincoln” from (empty) schools.
The ongoing closure is a social catastrophe. Even in higher-performing schools, such as the local high school my son attends via Zoom each day, regular attendance is way down in subjects like foreign languages, math, and science, and the students who do attend are making far less progress. A mental health crisis, including growing numbers of suicides, is burgeoning among school-age children. A generation of kids is spending eight-to-12 hours a day glued to computer and phone screens—which, as any behavioral scientist will tell you, is not conducive to healthy brain development, and as any eye doctor will tell you, is not conducive to visual well-being. Kids are not socializing in a meaningful way, developing new friendships, learning to navigate the complexities of social interactions, or, for that matter, doing the sort of deep learning one gets from direct conversation with a good teacher.
All of which is why so many middle-class parents are abandoning public school and putting their children into already-open private institutions.
Thirty years after California’s signature war-on-crime policies were locked into place, progressive DAs such as George Gascón in LA and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco are fighting to roll back those excesses. They are doing so not because they are “weak” on crime but because they are “smart” on crime; because they realize that you can’t solve complex societal problems with a sledgehammer.
In 2051, I suspect, West Coast politicians who grew up during this pandemic era will still be struggling with the generational legacy of shuttered schools and with the abysmal failure—by politicians, union leaders, and school district administrators, most of whom claim to be progressive and to empathize with the downtrodden—to get them up and running again in a timely manner.
For an adult, two years is a long time; for a child, losing 18 months to two years of in-person instruction is an eternity. Many of these children will never make up the lost ground. It will likely affect them socially, educationally, and economically for the rest of their lives.
Now that Trump’s out of office, and now that pandemic-deniers, anti-maskers, and quack medicine salesmen are no longer shaping the public discourse, it’s time to have a calm and sensible conversation about the costs and benefits of long-term shutdowns, especially when it comes to schools.
Governors Newsom (California), Kate Brown (Oregon), and Jay Inslee (Washington) are all doing bold, creative things in their states. They are forging ahead with nation-leading environmental initiatives, expanding state social-safety nets in innovative ways, working to give the undocumented access to health care, pushing increases in the minimum wage and stronger organizing rights for workers, and making good-faith efforts to reform and restructure their bloated criminal justice and policing systems. All of that is good. But if, over the coming months, they don’t get a handle on reopening schools, they will at some point face an explosive reaction from disgruntled voters (Newsom will quite likely face a recall election later this year). And that reaction could end up sweeping away all their other accomplishments.