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On the second day of the new school year, a high school sophomore named Hannah Watters snapped a photo of the hallway at her school in the suburbs of Atlanta. Kids in backpacks were standing shoulder to shoulder. Few were wearing masks. “This is not ok,” she tweeted. Within four days, six students and three staff members reported new cases of Covid-19, and classes were moved online for the following Monday and Tuesday. Brian Otott, the superintendent of the county school district, maintained that it wasn’t possible to require mask wearing. Watters, meanwhile, received a five-day suspension—since rescinded—for sharing her photo online.
The story of school reopenings is a study in skewed priorities. For weeks, Donald Trump’s administration and Republican officials like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have insisted on the necessity of in-classroom learning. But as the summer ticked by, the White House did little to ensure that in-person instruction would be safe; Trump’s leadership on the matter amounted to an all-caps demand issued via tweet in July: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” Instead, his administration fixated on loosening restrictions on businesses, which meant giving up on controlling the coronavirus’s spread. As restaurants and hair salons began to bring back customers, cases in the South and Southwest surged, making school reopenings increasingly dangerous.
Within weeks of the school year beginning, more than 1,000 students and school staffers were quarantined in Georgia’s Cherokee County. So were more than 80 students in Tennessee’s Putnam County and over a dozen at an elementary school in Florida. A junior high in Indiana had to put students in quarantine just hours into the first day of school. In Mississippi, which started to reopen schools the same week the state led the country in per capita Covid deaths, more than 120 students and staffers in the Corinth School District had to be quarantined, as well as more than 100 students in Gulfport. Cases have been confirmed in at least 22 schools across the state.
What’s happening in America’s schools, as Dr. Anthony Fauci put it in late July, is an “experiment.” While the extent to which children and teenagers transmit Covid-19 is not fully known, it is clear that they are not immune to the virus: Cases among children jumped 90 percent between July 9 and August 6, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And although Trump has argued that other countries have reopened schools with “no problems,” the state of the pandemic is far worse here. Of 13 countries analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation—including Germany, South Korea, and Israel—all but two had positivity rates below 4 percent when they resumed classes. In the US the rate was approaching 8 percent as school began to reopen, with some states—including Georgia, Florida, and Arizona—topping 10 and even 15 percent.
Given these conditions, many teachers and some parents are balking. The American Federation of Teachers gave its 1.7 million members permission to go on “safety strikes” if they believe that their schools’ reopening plans put them in danger, and teachers in Michigan, Arizona, and other states are considering or have moved forward with plans to do so. In response, critics of teachers’ unions have accused teachers of extortion. Others say teachers should willingly put themselves in harm’s way just like nurses, transit employees, and other essential workers. But no worker should be forced to accept needlessly unsafe conditions. The fact that teachers’ unions appear powerful says less about their members than it does about the abysmal state of labor rights in other essential industries.
Teachers are regularly asked to cover gaping holes in America’s social safety net. In addition to education, the public school system provides meals for nearly 30 million kids, counseling and other forms of developmental support, and as we’ve recently been reminded, free child care. Now schools are also being asked to absorb the fallout from the Trump administration’s botched response to the pandemic. “The truth is that schools are not reopening in person because education is valued. Our leaders are turning to education to get people back to work in an economy collapsing by the minute,” one teacher wrote. The kinds of questions that cloud reopening are dizzying, from how best to control crowding in hallways and on buses to what to do about shared bathrooms and lunchrooms to how to properly ventilate buildings. “Do I keep my classroom door open to improve air circulation or close it to protect my students from an active shooter?” another teacher asked.
Resolving many of these questions is not impossible, but it’s expensive. Smaller classes mean more teachers, more space, and staggered schedules. Equipping schools with enough hand sanitizer alone will cost the average district $39,517 a year, according to one analysis. Necessary protective measures for a district with 3,600 students will cost nearly $1.8 million for the year—no small sum, considering that public schools are often so underfunded that many teachers purchase their own classroom supplies.
Congress allocated $13.2 billion for K–12 schools in a relief bill passed in April. Now Democrats in Congress have asked for $430 billion for public education, including $175 billion for K–12 schools and $50 billion for child care. Senate Republicans included $70 billion in funding for K–12 schools in their $1 trillion relief package released in late July. But the bulk of the money in the GOP proposal is contingent on schools reopening at least partially, which some education experts have described as a punishment for schools that decide they can’t do so safely. (Twenty of the largest 25 school districts are starting the school year with remote learning, according to Education Week.) A separate bill from Washington Senator Patty Murray that would provide $175 billion has yet to been taken up by committee. Meanwhile, Trump, DeSantis, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have threatened to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen.
None of this is to dismiss the horrors of remote learning, which widens existing economic and racial chasms and is burdensome in the best of circumstances. While wealthier parents are hiring tutors for at-home learning pods or microschools, other families are struggling just to get online. Nearly 17 million children did not have high-speed Internet at home in 2018, and more than 7 million didn’t have a computer in their household. Many of the families most burdened by online instruction are also among those most at risk from the virus.
The chaos of early reopenings suggests that the most urgent question may not be how to safely resume in-person instruction for everyone but rather how to get families the services and support normally provided by schools. In the vacuum of national leadership, many districts are making their own plans. Some schools in Massachusetts and California are offering in-classroom instruction only to targeted groups of students for whom remote learning might be particularly challenging, such as young children, those with special needs, kids from low-income families, and those who are learning English as a second language. Indianapolis is opening learning hubs specifically for homeless students. Many cities and nonprofits like the YMCA are trying to fill the child care gap, offering students space for remote schoolwork. These efforts to reimagine instruction are not sufficient, but they could be expanded with an infusion of federal funds.
For schools, Covid-19 is a new crisis stacked on top of a very old one. Funding for public education has dropped precipitously since the Great Recession: In 2015 more than half of states were spending less per student than they did in 2008. Many of the equity issues that Trump and DeVos cite in their push to reopen schools are long-standing, exacerbated by funding schemes that tie school resources to the local tax base and by segregation. Both are political choices; neither will be resolved simply by reopening schools this fall. Other choices loom on the horizon as the virus decimates state revenues. The pandemic may have reminded Americans of how much they need schools and teachers. It’s also made it clear that the country is a long way from making them a priority.