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After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, President Barack Obama delivered what I have always believed to be the best speech of his presidency. He talked about what it’s like to be a parent, and the critical realization, experienced by most parents, that you can’t keep your children safe or teach them well without the help of your friends and neighbors. Then he expanded that idea to include the whole of society. He said, “This is our first task—caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”
We have not gotten anything right when it comes to caring for our children. We were not getting things right before the coronavirus pandemic; we did not get things right at the outset of the crisis; and as we hurtle towards the fall, we are on the verge of getting things dangerously, irreparably wrong again.
We are now embroiled in a critical debate about sending our kids back to school, and we have left ourselves nothing but bad options. If we send them to school, they might get sick or might get others sick. If we keep them home, we won’t be able to go to work and we might stunt their educational growth. If we do a “blended learning” approach and send them to school some days but keep them home other days, our children might get sick and they might be stunted. Besides, there aren’t many parents who can hold down a full-time job that they show up for only two-and-a-half days a week.
It didn’t have to be this way. If we had successfully done the work of stopping the spread of the virus, as has been done in other countries, we wouldn’t have to pick which poison to expose our kids to. If we had committed to testing so as to track the spread of the virus, instead of not testing so as to manage Donald Trump’s asinine fear that testing causes cases, we might know which school districts could safely reopen. If we had leaders who cared about the health of our people nearly as much as they care about the health of their stock portfolios, we would be able to protect teachers instead of asking them to risk their lives.
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Instead, our leaders view children as nothing more than tiny impediments to efficient wage slavery. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar put it most bluntly: “Parents have to get back to the factory. They’ve got to get back to the job site. They have to get back to the office. And part of that is their kids, knowing their kids are taken care of.”
Meanwhile, just last week President Donald Trump worried that CDC guidelines for protecting our children were too “expensive.” He tweeted, “I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!”
And so, we are here. I wouldn’t let my children eat candy handed out by this administration. There are snakes with better parental instincts than these people. The people running the nation have led us to 138,000 deaths and counting, the most in the world. They’ve lost the right to advise me on how to keep my kids safe.
To be sure, there are decent people, mainly at the local level, trying to come up with humane plans for the fall—plans that keep our kids safe, teach them, and don’t kill thousands of teachers while doing so. The problem is, a national crisis has a way of exacerbating everything that is weak with the underlying society, and our child care and school systems were hobbled and broken well before Covid-19 reared its viral head.
The first problem is that our child care system and school system are the same system, and that means that working families have no access to reliable, affordable child care without in-person schooling. “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both,” blared a recent New York Times headline, highlighting the problem every working parent has faced since the onset of the pandemic. Unequal access to home computing—the digital divide—deepens the problem and renders remote learning a disaster for many families. A family with only one device that can connect to the Internet is put under immense stress while parents are trying to work from home and a child (or multiple children) must Zoom in to school. And I don’t even know how the millions of families who have no devices and no reliable Internet service are getting by.
Meanwhile, experts tell us that there are psychological and social benefits to having kids return to school. The American Academy of Pediatrics is pushing for kids to be physically present in a classroom, if possible. I’m no doctor, but I worry a lot about how this extended quarantine (my kids haven’t been out in public since March 6) is delaying my children’s social growth and emotional intelligence. I can homeschool math; I can’t homeschool “Yes, your classmates made fun of your comment. Are you going to deal with it or are you going to act like Bari Weiss about it?” There is learning that can happen only out here in these streets, and the pandemic is robbing my children of such experiences.
But my first job is to keep my children safe. Sending them to a physical building with a bunch of other people doesn’t feel safe right now. When I last saw my 7-year-old’s class back in March, the kids were trampling each other to get in line for recess. Now I’m supposed to believe they will wait patiently six feet apart for an entire day? Have you met children? “Socially distant school” is one of those phrases, like “clean coal” or “compassionate conservative,” that names a thing that does not exist.
Covid-19 does not seem to kill children at the same rates as it kills adults, which is a blessing. But the long-term health effects of the virus on growing lungs are still largely unknown. Do people really expect parents to offer their children as guinea pigs in a years-long coronavirus study? Come on. I know parents who won’t let their kids near a Nintendo for fear of what screen time will do to their young minds.
That’s probably why, despite the desperate need for education and child care, an Axios poll found that 71 percent of parents thought sending kids back to school was a moderate to high risk. Among communities of color, the dread is even higher: 89 percent of Black respondents and 80 percent of Hispanic respondents thought sending kids back to school was risky.
Even if I weren’t myopically concerned about the health and safety of my own children, I would be skeptical of opening schools and risking the lives of my kids’ teachers. Whatever protections children seem to have from the virus does not extend to their caregivers and educators. Teachers should not be used like frontline infantry in our fight to return to normalcy.
The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the progressive caucus within New York’s United Federation of Teachers, is saying more or less the same thing: It’s too soon to go back to school. Even beyond the obvious health risks, decades of underfunding and inequality have robbed many school districts of the resources they would need to keep children and teachers safe if we reopened schools during the pandemic.
Once kids are back in the building, who is washing all those germy little desks? We saw this past spring that schools didn’t even have the basic supplies needed to keep classrooms clean. The government has had problems getting personal protective equipment to hospitals; how are we going to get all of that stuff to schools? Where are all the cleaning supplies coming from? Who is paying all the overtime for janitors—particularly in all those districts facing budget cuts?
And who is paying off the wrongful death lawsuit if even one child dies from Covid at school? Or will parents be expected to sign a death waiver, as if they’re sending their kids to a Trump rally?
And what happens when someone inevitably gets sick? You can read reams of plans and proposals for reopening schools, but you don’t see plans for when a child or teacher contracts the disease. Will the schools be closed? For how long? You don’t see plans for easy access to testing. You don’t see reporting guidelines for confirmed cases, or transparency guidelines for informing the school community when someone comes down with the illness. Do we really think parents are going to want to send their kids back to school when their kid’s teacher has Covid-19? Or is the plan simply to not tell the parents that the teacher got sick?
Despite the demonstrable need to send children back to school, it is highly unlikely that I will be sending my kids to a physical building this fall. I can say that because I am drenched in privilege. I have a house with a yard, so my kids aren’t cooped up all day. Each kid has their own dedicated iPad, and they have their own laptop. My wife and I both have jobs we can do from home, while homeschooling our kids. It’s terrible, but I at least have the option of dashing off crappier columns while taking care of my kids (sorry, readers). Most important, my kids’ school, a private one, provided all of the materials and support my family needed to keep educating the kids through this crisis. Zoom learning isn’t the best, but we’ll get by.
My privilege speaks to the shocking inequality in our society and school system. Fortunate people will opt out of this madness until there is a vaccine. We’ll print out workbooks, take virtual-reality trips to the zoo, and wait until everybody stops dying before letting our kids out of our cocoon of safety.
Less-privileged people will have to suffer the full consequences of living in the only advanced nation that can’t be bothered to stop the spread of the virus. Other countries are in a position to reopen schools and businesses because they did the right thing with lockdowns and didn’t turn public health into a culture war. Our country, led as it is by a ruling party that has spent three decades acting like “science” was a liberal hoax, is only in a position to court death.
Reopening schools in this environment will have predictable results: The children of poor and working-class folks will be more exposed to the disease, because those families will have no choice but to risk their health in order to work. Those children will, in turn, infect their parents and the teachers who work in lower-income communities, and any long-term health risks from Covid-19 will be borne more heavily by those who grew up with more economic challenges. Eventually, clusters of teachers will turn up dead, and schools will “re-close” just as many bars and restaurants are doing now.
It would be nice if we could skip over the dead teachers phase, but Trump and his education secretary, Erik Prince’s sister, have evidently decided that getting people killed is the best way for him to win reelection.
Trump’s predecessor poignantly concluded that our inability to protect our children from gun violence is the most unforgivable failure of American society. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a society that cannot come together to prevent children and teachers from being shot at school has no plan to keep children and teachers from getting sick at school.
Elie MystalTwitterElie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.