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The US safety net is made up of an interlocking network of means-tested programs (like Medicaid or food stamps) and government entitlements (like Social Security). It guarantees the welfare of folks rendered vulnerable—by deprivation, devastation, or deterioration. Yet this vital state function is chronically defunded and nearly defunct. As a result, inequality is extreme and growing in the United States.
The wealth gap between the richest and poorest families has more than doubled since 1989. And the top 1 percent of earners now hold more wealth than the bottom 80 percent. This chasm constrains the mobility of nearly every American, including kids. And it isn’t color-blind. A recent study found that for every dollar of wealth held by a household with white children, households with Black children have just one penny.
Current debates about reopening schools must be placed in this context, because they illuminate broader and longer fights to remedy racially apportioned access to mobility, and thus longevity, in this country. For example, efforts to meet the basic needs of neighborhoods dogged by residential segregation, job losses, and other forms of what scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment and organized violence” have long used schools as a back door to resources. This is because front doors to resources are too often barricaded by a crushing mix of austerity, racism, and violence. And so schools have become depots for food, health care, broadband Internet service, and accessible services for kids with special needs. They have also become critical sanctuaries to protect children from domestic violence and child abuse.
In this way, public education—like public health, utilities, and public spaces—has become a critical terrain of struggle for greater equality in the United States. And decades of efforts have used public schools, as both a mechanism and a physical site, to expand access to safety net supports and protections—for kids, their families, and communities.
Yet as schools expanded their safety net footprint, calls to cut school funding followed, district by district, year after year, generation after generation. Defunding schools has now become a draconian American tradition. It is normalized as necessary and sometimes even celebrated as “innovation,” when privatized models peel away the precious and limited resources the public system offers. This parasitic practice not only neglects the needs of our nation’s public school students, teachers, and staff. It also undermines the viability of the communities public schools serve. And it isn’t color-blind either. “Rampant school segregation” ensures that schools with inadequate resources predominantly serve Black and Latinx neighborhoods.
In short, while some people in this country lack protection from the brutalization of privatization and the state-sanctioned violence that protects corporate greed, others are shrinking the safety net for profit. The consequence is grave. Many were ensnared in a “slow death” before this pandemic began.
And ultimately, America’s entanglement with racism and capitalism is incompatible with life. No delusion of individual economic redemption or safety plans that allow the richest schools to reopen will save us. America needs a stronger safety net and a massive redistribution of wealth. Our lives depend on it.
Rebuild the Social Safety Net
Without a strong social safety net to buffer the effects of extreme inequality, societies, and their children, are made vulnerable to early death from a host of causes—new coronaviruses included. This is why, as inequality grows in the United States, life expectancy is decreasing, suicides and overdoses are alarmingly common and increasing, and our rates of chronic disease now outpace all other wealthy nations’. Our unfettered inequality—racial, social, and economic—has made “America first” in deaths across the globe.
To make matters worse, inequality also undercuts the tax base that supports the safety net. This furthers its laceration.
But this is the most devastating part. Despite the poorly funded safety net, folks who fall on hard times are not just victims of a “broken system.” Inequality is the point. “Hard times” are mass-engineered. And the reason recent attempts at safety continue to come up short in this country—even in the face of existential threats to human existence like Covid-19—is that in an extractive economy, taking safety from some people hoards it for others.
This upward distribution of life-saving relief is what allows corporations to grab hundreds of millions of dollars, at a time when some households received a “trickle down” one-time payment of $1,200. It is what allowed wealthy, mostly white New Yorkers to take refuge in second homes as the city’s lower classes were forced to walk to work past street morgues, lined with refrigerated trucks potentially holding their loved ones and neighbors. It is what allows the nation’s powerful elite essentially unlimited access to Covid testing, while populations suffering the ills of segregation continue to languish without a test in sight. It is what allows this nation to valorize hard-work while simultaneously sacrificing the laborers who do it.
So to plan how schools can safely reopen in the midst of a pandemic, we must first address the manufactured precarity that threatens human well-being and already renders some parents, teachers, students, staff, and neighborhoods more vulnerable to early death than others. That starts with rebuilding the safety net and extending it to everyone in the United States.
A truly robust safety net is the only intervention that can enable everyone to safely adhere to the restrictions internationally demonstrated to limit Covid-19 transmission and spread. A reduction of the local burden of Covid infection to below 1 percent of the population is the necessary condition for schools (or many businesses, for that matter) to safely reopen.
So here’s how to do it.
Pass Universal Health Care
Recent evidence indicates that presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission cause more than 50 percent of Covid infections during outbreaks. That means current isolation efforts that focus only on identifying and treating the symptomatic are actually insufficient. Instead, the United States needs to develop the capacity to test, trace, and treat the entire population, probably not just once but repeatedly, as exposure patterns change. This requires an expansion of test production and lab capacity, and the workforce to support each of these measures. It also requires universal access to health care. The 13 states still holding out need to follow Oklahoma’s lead and expand Medicaid. While they do, federal legislators must pass universal health care. This will help ensure access to testing, treatment, and chronic care independent of income or employment status.
Enable Masking, Physical Distancing, and Hand-washing
Even with expansions in testing and care, everyone would still need to take precautions to limit their potential exposures because test inaccuracies, result delays, and “inevitable imperfections” in tracing and isolation efforts can increase risks for Covid spread.
The CDC has outlined guidelines for institutions of higher education to promote behaviors that reduce spread, maintain healthy environments, maintain healthy operations, and prepare for when someone gets sick. But such recommendations are more practicable for some populations than for others, and their success depends on everyone participating. Targeted efforts could help ensure that those rendered most vulnerable are also protected. To start, the United States could distribute free masks to everyone, as South Korea has done. We could also repurpose hotels and corporate office buildings to house the homeless, offer physical distancing to those who live in crowded, congregate settings, and provide adequate quarantine facilities for those who lack them. We could decarcerate the enormous US prison population that accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s early outbreaks. And we could ensure a clean water supply that serves Black, Latinx, and Indigenous households so everyone has access to clean, running water for hand-washing.
Controlling the pandemic is possible. It just requires enormous federal and state investments to ensure that those made most vulnerable have the resources they need to protect themselves and others.
Redistribute Wealth to Support Parents, Teachers, and School Staff
Providing federal financial relief directly to US households, indefinitely, would redistribute resources downward if financed by taxing the wealthiest corporations and private citizens. It would also safeguard families from eviction as current temporary moratoriums on such practices end, and support those newly and chronically unemployed.
Such efforts should be coupled with broad expansions in eligibility for federal and state nutrition programs, home-delivery options for food supports, and home-based interventions for special education needs.
States and localities should also work to provide universal broadband Internet access that makes remote learning, telehealth, and working from home possible—for students, teachers, staff, and parents. And school districts could augment local safety nets to additionally provide information about the coronavirus and enable parents to compare their school’s plan with those of other states and territories.
Strengthen Worker Protections
Mandated worker protections that extend across states and industries are critical to limiting Covid spread, such as paid sick leave, parental leave, hazard pay, and access to PPE. Private companies should increase workers’ pay, and the government should raise the federal minimum wage and pay teachers more, now, to address the Covid inequities that accompany income inequality.
Providing universal health care and guaranteed income, adequate job protections, and access to PPE would enable parents, teachers, and school staff to effectively adhere to mandated precautions, limit the spread of infection between their workplace and their home, and receive regular Covid testing and necessary care.
Interventions at this scale enable testing, tracing, and treating; home-based quarantine without the threat of bankruptcy; sick leave without the risk of eviction; health care access for parents, students, teachers, and staff, regardless of their exposure status; and distance learning for classrooms most safely convened remotely.
A number of experts and communities have also outlined careful and thoughtful recommendations to guide schools and clinicians as they navigate the possibility of safe reopening.
But to be clear, what is required to open schools safely is neither radical, nor unaffordable, in a nation as wealthy as the United States. What is radical are calls to continue to defund public education and the already shredded US safety net in the middle of a global pandemic. And what we can no longer afford is to pretend that the solutions are not fully evident. Households with children disproportionately benefit from the nation’s existing anti-poverty programs. Expanding those programs makes sense in every way.
Children are the physical embodiment of our collective future. Their well-being and the health of this nation now rely on a guaranteed and robust national safety net and significant wealth redistribution. This is what it would really take to safely reopen schools.