Why We Shouldn’t Fully Reopen Schools

We cannot pretend things are normal while COVID-19 spreads. The Trump Admin's calls to fully reopen schools are careless, dangerous, and inhumane.
President Donald Trump looks at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as he speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump looks at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as he speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

My wife is a teacher. For the past few months, she has been collecting masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, and working on ideas for other protective equipment for her classroom, anticipating a potential return to in-person instruction. With national caseloads and deaths breaking new records every day, I’m absolutely terrified for her, her colleagues, and her students, which is why I’m writing this for any school board member or concerned parent out there.

While I understand the political and economic pressure for a return to some semblance of normalcy, looking at the news every day just makes me more and more concerned. Whether it’s coaches and student athletes testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed to the virus over the summer, education professionals coming back from meetings with the illness, or board members being forced to meet via Zoom to discuss reopening plans because it’s too dangerous to for them to have a meeting in person, there’s a growing body of evidence that returning to in-person instruction is clearly dangerous.

Three teachers in Arizona shared a classroom to provide help with online instruction for a summer class. They wore masks and gloves. They washed their hands. They practiced social distancing. Now, one of them died of the virus while the other two have also come down with this illness. As the nation approaches 140,000 deaths from COVID-19 and 3.5 million recorded cases, there’s a nationwide conversation about reopening schools pushed by the federal government which believes against all reason that acting as if the pandemic is over is in Americans’ best interests.

Make no mistake, reopening schools for in-person instruction as the disease rages out of control is both dangerous and inhumane to everyone involved. Considering the severity of the virus and the mismanagement of its containment, mandates for in-person instruction like the one issued by Governor DeSantis in Florida are downright monstrous and will result in deaths of students and staff, as well as potentially lifelong complications for those who will undoubtedly be infected.

Coronaviruses are a viral family responsible for common colds, which led many optimists to believe that it was nothing more than a run of the mill upper respiratory infection, the kind we get all the time and generally refer to as “the crud.” However, COVID-19 appears to be a cardiovascular disease which tends to manifest itself in the lungs because the pulmonary and circulatory systems interact so closely, and lungs are rich with the kinds of receptors to which the virus can easily attach.

While this may appear to be a nitpicky taxonomic distinction, it means that COVID-19 has the potential to do widespread damage to the body, hitching a ride on our cells to form dangerous blood clots and attack multiple organs, raising the risk of strokes and fatal complications. With no vaccine and no cure, only an expensive experimental treatment originally intended to keep Ebola at bay, this is not an illness to take lightly.

As some Republican politicians push for schools to open, they tend to cite the mistaken belief that children are much less likely to be carriers of COVID-19 or succumb to the disease. This notion is based on statistics that merely reflect that kids are often unable to travel on their own and having them shelter in place simply protected them from many opportunities for infection. And even then, children have died of it.

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To send them back to school with no nationwide, coordinated plan while the pandemic keeps getting worse will only endanger them and the staff responsible for their education and safety. As one of President Trump’s economic advisers Larry Kudlow tells the public “just reopen schools, it’s not that hard” from, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offers little other than evasive stammering during interviews, no such plan appears to be forthcoming.

In fact, the Education Department is threatening to cut funds to schools that choose not to reopen while promising only a pittance of funding and no logistical help to reopen safely. This means the decision has to come down to the local level, and unfortunately, there are very few places in the country able to do in-person instruction with any degree of safety. The only remotely safe way to teach is to continue distance learning.

While there are discussions about implementing a number of safety measures in schools similar to those seen in South Korea, Norway, and Germany, rates of infection in those nations are just a small fraction of those in the United States and going down while ours are skyrocketing. To pretend that we are currently in a position to emulate countries that were able to beat back the pandemic and go ahead with in-person instruction means that untold students and staff will be collateral damage of an exercise in battling reality itself with political hubris.

Yes, not opening schools for in-person instruction in the fall is suboptimal. Parents need to work, there are serious, impossible to ignore inequities in online instruction, and children do tend to learn better face to face. Our socio-economic and political systems aren’t built for this crisis. But unfortunately, the virus does not care that we’re not ready for it and the steps we have to take to keep ourselves safe mean big changes to our daily lives. It doesn’t play fair. It won’t give us a reprieve just because we ask it to think about the GDP.

No amount of wishful thinking or posturing will make it disappear. It cannot be threatened or reasoned with. It’s just hereditary material in a shell made of fats to which we’re nothing more than hosts. And when it’s traveling between victims it can stay airborne and stable for as long as 16 hours, an ability that when combined with its long incubation period and novelty makes it one of the most highly contagious diseases we know. Until we have vaccines and better treatment, there is no going back to normal, especially in environments like schools, where children and adults interact in close proximity for long periods of time.

Right now because teachers don’t know whether they’re coming back to schools or not, they’re spending hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets — as usual — trying to get ready for an uncertain future, just like my wife. They’re also trying to imagine what it will be like when their students die of the virus, as pundits and politicians appear eager to dismiss because they think “only a small percentage” of children will succumb and are drafting wills.

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My wife has been teaching for ten years and already, three of her students have died. She got the calls from her previous students long after she left their schools, asking her what they should do after their friends killed themselves.

When there was a shooting next to a school where she used to work, she got calls from her former students asking if they’d get in trouble should they go home instead of returning to school from their off-campus lunches since they felt understandably unsafe. She also had to advise her students on what they should do in the event of a mass shooting after Sandy Hook, a surreal task in any other nation in the civilized world.

If students in her classroom die from COVID-19, she’ll get the call and have to explain what happened to the rest of her class. It’s a task that she says never gets easier, and her biggest objection to in-person instruction now is that she may be directly responsible for unwittingly getting a student sick as politicians rush to sacrifice children to pretend that they aren’t inept failures who made the worst possible decisions during a real crisis, demanding that we all play along with their absurd delusions of adequacy.

And that’s the biggest thing so many people refuse to understand about teachers and teaching in America. Due to the many dysfunctions of our government at just about every level, we’re saddled with elected officials whose ineptitude left hundreds of very real problems festering for decades, and there are certain jobs to which it falls to pick up the pieces. Teaching is one of those jobs, and teachers regularly mentor kids, buy them lunches, help them with supplies and basic needs like clothes and shoes, and do dozens of other little things no one even thinks about or wants to.

Sadly, at no point does the American public or the dead weights they install into office seem to question whether they ask police officers, soldiers, teachers, and healthcare workers to do too much or to make too many sacrifices. Instead, they demand simple solutions to complex problems, and are infuriated when told that’s simply not possible, refusing to listen to details or facts that show them the full scope of the issues in question.

The nation’s eternal optimism seems to be based on the hope that others will swoop in to save the day for them. Teachers will come through and make their children prodigies. Police officers will become compassionate superheroes while the military will win every war and subdue every enemy, real or imagined. Tech billionaires will swoop in, teach everyone how to code, and shower communities in dire straits with millions of high paying jobs.

Well, that eternal optimism is now being checked by reality. It’s time to stop pretending that a magic solution is around the corner or that we can once again ignore a problem or offload it to someone else. We are out of people on whom to offload them. We are out of ways to paper over our compounding failures. The chickens didn’t come home to roost. Instead, the vultures have swooped in, salivating at what they think is a soon-to-be carcass.

Often, we have to make major decisions based on a complex moral calculus. But in this case, the choice is clear. Opening schools for online learning only will save lives and prevent serious complications in the near- and long-term future. In-person instruction will result in deaths and — barring a near-miraculous reversal of current trends — will necessitate a return to online-only classes after thousands are sickened and killed.

When we have to decide between life and health or convenience and economic indicators, we should always strive to choose the former because, without it, the latter will quickly falter. In these trying times, we must rise to the occasion and do things that we may not want to do, and resist pressure from those who don’t care about the consequences, for the greater good. And isn’t that, one of the biggest lessons we want to impart on future generations?

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Opinion // Betsy Devos / Coronavirus / Donald Trump / Education / Schools