With some reluctance I write about the decisions that grip some 30,000 school districts across the country. I am hesitant because I don’t wish to be prescriptive about the most contentious issue of in-person versus remote learning. In our republic, decisions of this nature are inherently local. As both a parent and keen observer of schools, this suggests to me that school districts are trying to address issues as completely and thoughtfully as possible.
What I wish to do with this column is outline the very high stakes of this decision and walk through how the rest of us might make that decision simpler. Both the decision to hold in-person classes and the decision to go online have enormous costs. The landscape for decision making is tough.
Indiana has about 1.1 million kids in grades K-12 spread across almost 300 school corporations. Of these, about 7.0 percent or more have no internet at home, and many more have intermittent service or slow download speed. All told, somewhere between one third and one half of Hoosier kids face real learning obstacles with online instruction.
It should be obvious that the school closing in March was most damaging to those students who were already the most vulnerable. It is likely the learning gap between the poorest and most affluent students grew more last year than at any time in American history. This is a strong argument for opening schools, but there is more.
If schools do not re-open, we will extend the single worst labor supply shock in U.S. history. By my count, 7-10 percent of workers are either single parents or one partner of a dual income couple with children aged 5 to 12 years. Many, perhaps most, of these workers will be unable to work if schools don’t re-open. The loss of this many workers alone is enough to push us right to the brink of a depression.
The cost of opening is also profound. The global pandemic remains with us. Caseloads and deaths grow at a rate suggesting emerging problems this summer and fall. It is nearly certain that re-opening schools will increase the mortality and morbidity of COVID-19. I don’t know by how much, but it will not be trivial. I am certain that by late August we will have news and social media reports of COVID spread among teachers, staff and children. COVID deaths among teachers and students are inevitable.
Principals and school boards face enormous pressure as the disease spreads. As the academic year approaches there are no happy choices, only grim ones. But, there is at least one action we can all take to ease this burden on teachers and school administrators. We can create a culture of compliance with the wearing of masks.
It must be said that the anti-mask animus of the past few months is fueled by Mr. Trump and aided by confused statements by the CDC. From the beginning, his mockery of mask wearing and magical thinking about COVID turned an ordinary public health matter into a bizarre statement of personal politics. This deeply immoral approach has been carried into every corner of the nation by a vast propaganda operation. It is more inexplicable than anything I have seen.
Mask wearing should be an uncontroversial issue. As one of my kids’ teachers noted, schools have dress codes covering the length of shorts, the covering of shoulders and the wearing of identification cards on a lanyard. How then, she asked, can masks be provocative? They cannot be, and all of us have a moral and practical duty to our communities to change this dangerous gambit.
Today, school boards across America wrestle about re-opening decisions simply because they fear anger toward masks and other basic public health measures. This is simply crazy. If you care about the economy and about student learning and health, wear a mask.
I know that elected leaders from school boards to governors worry about the inevitable backlash if they mandate the wearing of masks. In this climate of fear, no one wishes to be first to announce tough restrictions. This leaves school boards hesitant to take actions that would calm parents and teachers.
Fixing this requires action at the state level. It is telling that 18 out of 24 states with Democratic governors have statewide mask requirements, but only 2 out of 26 with GOP governors have them. Even accounting for differences in disease spread, this is a stunning indictment of political courage.
As I said at the outset, I support strong local control of schools, but on this matter, it is too late. The president has already intervened in local decision-making about school re-opening and the wearing of masks. Undoing the damage of the Trump Administration will require better state leadership.
The choices of how and when to re-open schools are the most consequential decisions almost any current elected official has ever made. It quite literally balances risk of death alongside that of economic depression and a lost generation of vulnerable students. This is a decision environment combat leaders face.
As we thank school leaders for their service, we must also ensure we do everything we can to allow them to focus on the task at hand. This must be a decision about how best to educate children while satisfying the needs of public health. It must not be about dodging the political ire of a collapsing political movement.
About the Author
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