On a time line of the coronavirus crisis, Sunday, March 15th, is listed as the date when New York City’s public schools were ordered closed, but that’s not quite how things went. Earlier that day, Mayor Bill de Blasio had said that schools should remain open, despite teachers’ unions and public-health experts asking him to close them. As a result, little planning had been done, and students and parents went to schools throughout the week to pick up laptops and learning materials left behind the previous Friday. Until at least that Thursday, teachers were required to come in for group training sessions, where some learned of colleagues who were already sick with covid-19.
As schools across the country think about how they might reopen, that disorderly week in New York City’s schools—the nation’s largest system, with more than a million students—is worth looking back at, if only as a reminder that openings and closings are not simply a matter of turning a key. Many of the complexities are reflected in guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, which were released last week. Among other measures, they advise, if “feasible,” spacing desks six feet apart, having children eat lunch at their desks, and preventing younger kids from sharing toys. Texas is allowing schools to offer in-person summer school starting June 1st, with classes limited, for now, to eleven people. On Thursday, Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, hosted a virtual meeting with representatives from a thousand of that state’s school districts, discussing outdoor instruction, smaller classes, and hybrids of remote and face-to-face learning. California will call for disinfecting facilities more frequently, and mask-wearing, but, as in many other states, local districts will have considerable autonomy. Difficult decisions will have to be made everywhere about sports and extracurricular activities. Last week, Mayor de Blasio said that “plan A” is to have schools fully open “as normal” in September, but that “there’s a plan B, a plan C and a plan D. You can do all sorts of things, from alternating days, staggered schedules.” Still, he said, remote learning might also be an option.
For many families, it is unthinkable that schools won’t open, although there are sharp divisions; a Politico/Morning Consult poll of registered voters last week showed that a plurality think that remote instruction should continue in the fall. The cost of keeping children out of classrooms is high, educationally and socially. Lost instructional time is hard to recapture; some high-school students may drop out. Schools provide meals, social services, and, for many students, a safe haven, and they allow parents to go to work. (Many schools still do; New York City offers grab-and-go breakfast and lunch, and child care for some essential workers.) Remote learning is a pale substitute, and its burdens are unfairly borne. But, without a vaccine, which is not expected to be widely available until next year, many schools may stay closed—or be forced to close abruptly in the face of a second wave of infection.
The assessment of that danger has become a passionate, and often politicized, part of the school debate. One position, championed by Senator Rand Paul, among others, is that, compared with the situation with adults, there is little to worry about when it comes to children and covid-19. But some children become very ill and a number die. Some of them have preëxisting conditions, while others with seemingly no risk factors succumb to the little-understood multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or mis-C. And infected children can be contagious. Researchers are trying to determine how the virus impacts different populations, including the young. The key, meanwhile, is to manage the risk, not to deny or underplay it.
Children, of course, are not the only ones in schools; there are about 3.2 million public-school teachers nationwide, and an untold number of aides, administrators, food-service workers, custodians, guards, and school-bus drivers. At a recent Fox News town hall, President Trump said, “If you have a teacher that’s sixty-five or seventy years old and has diabetes, that one, I think, they’re going to have to sit it out for a little while.” Pronouncements like that raise questions of their own: will every at-risk teacher be furloughed or put on disability? Simply marginalizing vulnerable staff members is not a solution. The United Federation of Teachers, which represents most of New York City’s teachers, and has been tallying the deaths of scores of its members, has reasonably said that teachers should not return unless steps are taken to keep them safe. The union’s proposals include a testing-and-contact-tracing program, a measure that has been effective in other countries.
Almost all the proposals—including another recommendation from the C.D.C., that seats be left empty on school buses—will require money, and so far the funding is not there. Instead, in New York City, the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, recently spoke of deep budget cuts. “Students are going to feel perhaps bigger class sizes,” he said. Similarly, Superintendent Thurmond announced that California, for all its brainstorming, “cannot reopen safely” if planned cuts, amounting to more than fifteen billion dollars, go into effect. Both officials are hoping for federal aid; there has been a severe lack of leadership from the Trump Administration in that regard.
The pandemic, as has often been noted, offers an opportunity to reopen in a better way, with a greater recognition of inequities. There is a risk that the reopening process will only amplify those divisions, with wealthier districts (and private schools) raising money for infrared thermometers and contact tracers, and poorer ones left to scrounge for bandannas and disinfectant wipes. Before the pandemic, public-school teachers spent hundreds of dollars a year of their own money on classroom supplies; they can’t just be handed a new, longer shopping list.
In making reopening decisions, politicians and school officials need to listen to all parties involved. That includes teachers but also families; school readiness may mean parents teaching children to wear masks. Above all, perhaps, the process should involve students. Their perspective deserves respect in sorting out what aspects of school culture are most valuable, and how they might safely be sustained. Students, particularly the older ones, are ultimately going to have to be trusted to follow social-distancing mandates on their own. Faced with the threat posed by school shootings, high schoolers have at times shown more of a capacity for leadership than politicians; in this crisis, too, they may surpass the adults around them. That may be an education in itself. ♦
Amy Davidson Sorkin
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