We need schools to be open so that student learning doesn’t suffer further. British children were out of school for months at a time during World War II evacuations. That country’s long-term achievement measures showed the damage to that cohort of children in literacy rates and delinquency.
We need schools to be open so that parents can go back to work fully, reactivating the economy.
We need schools to be open so that the routine provision of food and health resources to needy students — our society’s accidental welfare structure — can resume fully.
We need colleges and universities, including residential programs, to be open in the fall so that the many vulnerable institutions among them don’t fail and wipe out a key pillar of our civil society and intellectual infrastructure.
How do we get schools open safely?
High schools in Germany have reopened, and one is piloting having students self-swab twice a week.
It is not enough, however, that some schools may be able to run programs on their own. The goal should be a broadly safe environment — with schools equipped to operate appropriately in contexts in which the disease exists but at a low prevalence. As UCSD professor of medicine Robert T. Schooley put it: “One of the things we have to do as a country is make sure we don’t have a raging epidemic in the fall that will keep us all home, but if we get to a point that we can come back we want to be able to operate as safely as we can.”
On university campuses with high-powered research facilities — my own included — it’s easy to imagine running a program just for us that would make it possible for us to open safely. But this would be like responding to terrorism by encouraging every organization in a civil society to build its own private security corps. Those with resources are protected; everyone else is not. A blameworthy shrug of acceptance on the part of the comfortable would set our course in this direction.
What’s the alternative? To protect against terrorism, we built a broad public infrastructure of security — including airport checkpoints, new ways of monitoring public transportation, and ongoing investigations of specific threats and networks. Yes, additional private security measures have emerged since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. One can’t enter many high-rise buildings, for instance, without showing identification. But the broad structures of public security act as umbrellas that protect everybody. Needs for private security are minimized.
Achieving security in the face of this pathogen should similarly be a public, not private, endeavor. Before the start of the school year, we have time to build broad public testing and contact tracing to follow chains of transmission, finding every covid case, and supporting people in voluntary isolation. Yes, it would be good to have civil society organizations such as Brown and UCSD helping this endeavor by contributing resources in support of their communities. But they should do this as part of a comprehensive and universal infrastructure, not by contributing yet another brick to the ever-growing wall separating the haves from the have-nots.
Can we open our schools safely in the fall? We have the technical knowledge to do so. We have the material resources needed to do so. Throughout our state, county and municipal structures, we have the organizational frameworks for doing so. Those who think the coronavirus is no more dangerous than the flu are wrong. It kills at meaningfully higher rates and spreads more ferociously. It causes fear, fear that we have to conquer through testing and tracing tools. The costs of such tools are a fraction of what we are spending on stimulus. We truly have no excuse for not taking the next two to three months to clear our country of covid-19 and to restore a universal sense of security so that we can safely reopen our schools.
We have wasted so much time since January. Let’s not waste the rest of the time we have. If we do, our political institutions will have flunked a basic requirement of governance. As the Declaration of Independence says, their charge is to effect the “safety and happiness” of the people.
The author is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.