In fact, many studies find that schools play a small role in coronavirus transmission. Even as some New York City students were being forced back to remote learning this week, Mark Ghaly, the California state secretary for health and human services, told the media in his state that “we have not seen a connection between increased transmission and school reopening or in-person learning.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that school closings are not protecting us from coronavirus spreads. They are instead a particularly awful form of coronavirus safety theater, one that will not only alter the life trajectories of millions of vulnerable people, but also set our nation on a path it could take decades to recover from — if it recovers at all.
As just about any parent can tell you, remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person classes. And that’s when the children show up — kindergarten enrollment is down by 14 percent since last year in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school district.
On an individual level, this educational and learning loss will not be evenly distributed. Suburban school districts are more likely to be open for classes than big-city ones. Not only are white students more likely to be offered in-person classes than their Black peers; they also are likely to possess other privileges that make remote learning more effective, starting with the basics: regular access to a computer and wireless connection.
This is both a personal and societal catastrophe. A few months ago, I flagged a report from McKinsey noting that by leaving its schools closed, the United States risked poorer educational outcomes for many students, resulting in lower lifetime earnings. The impact won’t only be felt in individual lives: Not prioritizing children ultimately hurts all of us. Our country’s gross domestic product could continue to suffer decades into the future, when covid-19 is but a paragraph in history books.
And McKinsey was only counting the cost to children. The fractured career trajectories of a generation of women need to be counted, too. Mothers continue to take on the brunt of child-rearing work, and now they have yet another task: school-day supervision. Children don’t watch themselves, and putting a kindergartener in front of a computer to attend school and leaving him or her alone to get to it isn’t happening. In recent months, women have made up the vast majority of the people leaving the workforce entirely, and millions more are considering taking the same step in months to come.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Schools in many European countries are back in session. “Schools should be the very last bit of society that we want to close down again,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this summer, noting he had “a moral duty” to keep them open.
Here in the United States, on the other hand, many teachers are frightened to return to in-person learning — and they are backed by powerful unions, as well as the occasional study saying that schools can be a transmission point. And many parents, raised on the hyper-individualist culture of the past several decades, look to take care of their own. Those who can afford it are forming do-it-yourself education pods for their children — something that will undercut long-term support for public education even further.
Moreover, no small amount of the discussion around schools is driven by a mind-set of “If President Trump is for it, I am against it” that has become all too prevalent. Journalist Alec MacGillis, writing for ProPublica, traced out how support for school reopenings rose in late spring — until, that is, the president spoke up in favor of it in July. It’s hard not to suspect that keeping the schools closed allows politicians — especially Democratic ones — to seem like tough, take-charge types bravely confronting a disease, without expending much in the way of political capital.
The United States is a country that likes to proclaim its love of children. Unfortunately, that love is often honored more in sentiment than in action. Keeping our schools closed offers more of the same, with a new twist: We are not only not protecting our children but also destroying their futures — while telling ourselves we’re acting in their best interests.