America’s Schools Are a Moral and Medical Catastrophe
A guide to understanding the science, and the politics, preventing U.S. children from being educated this year.
After U.S. President Donald Trump demanded last week that schools nationwide reopen this fall, regardless of the status of their community’s COVID-19 epidemic status, his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was asked how this could safely be accomplished. She offered no guidelines, nor financial support to strapped school districts. Her reply was that school districts nationwide needed to create their own safety schemes and realize that the federal government will cut off funds if schools fail to reopen. “I think the go-to needs to be kids in school, in person, in the classroom,” she said in an interview on CNN on July 12.
This is nothing short of moral bankruptcy. The Trump administration is effectively demanding schools bend to its will, without offering a hint of expert guidance on how to do so safely, much less the necessary financing.
I can’t correct for the latter failure, of course. But here’s some information that will be of use to the many rightfully concerned parents and educators across the United States.
1. Should a national-scale school reopening be considered, at all?
Emphatically, no. The state of Florida’s data shows that 13 percent of children who have been tested for the novel coronavirus were found to be infected, and there’s a gradient of infection downward with age: Only 16 percent of these positive cases are in children 1 to 4 years old, whereas 29 percent are in those 15 to 17 years old. In Nueces County, Texas, 85 children under age 2 have tested positive for the coronavirus since March, killing one of them. The infections were likely caught from parents or older siblings. A South Korean government survey of 60,000 households discovered that adults living in households that had an infected child aged 10 to 19 years had the highest rate of catching the coronavirus—more so than when an infected adult was present. Nearly 19 percent of people living with an infected teenager went on to test positive for the virus within 10 days. A Kaiser Family Foundation study says some 3.3 million adults over 65 in the United States live in a home with at least one school-aged child, putting the elders at special risk.
A one-size policy absolutely does not fit all: School risk is a reflection of the larger coronavirus prevalence in a community. A blanket national school policy makes no sense whatsoever.
2. Do school shutdowns work to slow the spread of COVID-19 in communities?
Some studies of European countries that have successfully limited spread of the virus found that school opening has no impact on the epidemic, one way or another, at that stage of coronavirus containment. Of the more than 2000 blood samples examined in a German study, only 12 were able to detect antibodies, which corresponds to a share of well below one percent. This means that a silent, symptom-free infection in the pupils and teachers examined by us has so far occurred less frequently than we suspected. On the other hand, school closure appears to be an essential component of social distancing in places where the coronavirus runs rampant, such as in New York City this spring, or Miami today.
3. What is the most crucial information that decision-makers must have in hand before opening schools?
Ideally, school districts should first create voluntary cohorts of students, teachers, and staff to test for the coronavirus this summer to determine how rampant the virus may be in their respective communities. If rates of infection approach zero, schools may open—but the same cohorts should be retested periodically to spot increases in infection rates, upon which the schools should take action to stifle an outbreak through contact tracing, further testing, and isolating the infected staff and students at home for two weeks.
Opening schools without such baseline data is like launching a new product line without initial focus-group testing to know what consumers will buy. It amounts to flying blind.
4. How dangerous is COVID-19 for children?
COVID-19 illness may be relatively rare in children, but it can be very severe, even fatal. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children or MIS-C associated with COVID-19 has been found to lead to “serious and life-threatening illness in previously healthy children and adolescents,” according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. MIS-C involves swelling, pain, and dysfunction in multiple organs in a child’s body, generally leads to hospitalization, and in has proven lethal in four of the recently reported American cases. By late May, two research groups had analyzed nearly 300 cases of MIS-C in at least 26 U.S. states. Less common are profound cardiovascular effects in infected teenagers, such as a 16-year-old Italian boy whose heart swelled, nearly killing him. Strokes, delirium, high fevers, and possible brain damage have all been seen in children, in addition to the range of adult COVID-19 symptoms.
5. But aren’t kids suffering now, without being with other children, and failing to learn social skills?
Yes. Peer socialization is crucial to kids’ understandings of everything from gender and race to hierarchy, power, etiquette, civic responsibility, generosity, friendship, love, violence, and self-awareness. Researchers warn that the isolation necessitated by the pandemic could lead to serious mental health issues in locked-down teenagers. Moreover, roughly 30 million kids in U.S. schools annually are enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, receiving daily free meals. The Trump administration is currently at loggerheads with child advocacy groups and school districts over qualifications for free meals in reopening schools.
Moreover, some 31 million kids in U.S. schools last year were in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, receiving daily free meals. The national charity Feeding America says about one out of every four children, or 11.2 million, in the United States are now experiencing daily hunger due to the COVID-19 school closures.
6. Can physical changes at schools—fewer kids per class, better airflow, everybody wearing masks—sufficiently increase safety for everybody?
In communities with rampant spread of the coronavirus it’s not possible to guarantee safe classrooms. But where community infection rates are lower, any measures that increase airflow and reduce crowding and physical contact, coupled with required mask-wearing, will tremendously reduce viral spread. Here’s the key: 172 social distancing studies worldwide show that separating people by more than six feet could reduce viral spread by as much as 90 percent, and proper mask-wearing cuts the risk by a whopping 82 percent.
7. So, what’s the problem? Just put 10 kids in a classroom instead of 30, put top-of-the-line filters on the air conditioning systems, have everybody wear masks, and voila: safe classrooms, no?
The U.S. market for child-sized masks has always been stressed, and some states, such as California, have begun buying up such masks in anticipation of possible school reopenings. Moreover, requiring kids to wear masks for hours every day can prove frightening to some children, and it’s difficult to enforce. Nobody knows how full-time mask-wearing and in-class social distancing will affect children’s education and social skills, because nothing exactly like this has ever been attempted, especially for months on end.
What’s clear is that smaller classes with better air filter systems cost money. Fairness quickly becomes an issue: Wealthy districts are more likely to have the resources to make such changes—and to pay for additional staff to accommodate more classes of fewer students. Communities with lower property tax bases are far less likely to have the money to adapt in this way to COVID-19.
8. If you build it—spend all that money to make the air safe to breathe and spread the children out—will parents send their kids to school, and will teachers show up?
The Trump administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has taken an anti-regulatory stance, so there are no COVID-19 rules to protect school district employees. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten predicts a massive wave of teacher retirements will unfold: “We’re going to see a huge brain drain in the next few weeks.” Many superintendents have already heard from teachers and staff union leaders that they may go on strike in coming weeks if ordered to work under conditions they feel are unsafe. This week the largest teachers union in Florida filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, charging his administration has not taken steps to ensure school safety.
Parents face competing pressures to get back to their jobs, which means getting the kids out of the house—but they want their children to be safe. Balancing those interests is tough, even for the experts. The New York Times surveyed hundreds of disease experts, finding that 10 percent of respondents felt ready to send kids back to school right away, but, at the other end, 15 percent thought it best to wait more than a year. A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll of American adults finds that despite more than half of them saying the pandemic and lockdown have had a negative impact on their mental health, 60 percent of parents with kids in school believe schools should not reopen as long as the coronavirus continues to circulate in their communities, and only 34 percent think it’s wise to open classes sooner.
9. What about justice? Poorer households are less likely to have access to high-speed internet, decent computers, and private rooms for each child, so they face more barriers to learning online. But they are also likely to go to school in districts that can’t afford to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. Is there a way to avoid having the COVID-19 crisis spawn a lost generation effect, hitting especially hard in African American and Hispanic communities?
Of all issues, this is the key reason why the Trump administration’s hands-off policy will fail. Leaving all decisions and mitigations regarding schools to local communities ensures shortages of funds and a lack of political commitment to the neediest. Without federal resources and financial support to create an even playing field, these kids will lose, regardless of whether schools are opened or remote learning continues. Many of them are going hungry now, in the absence of subsidized school meals, and, according to multiple surveys, have disappeared from remote schooling—various districts report that only around half of students log into online classes in an average day. Even in the best of times, their schools were the worst the United States had to offer, with crowded classes squashed into run-down facilities featuring inadequate or nonexistent air conditioning or winter heat.
Since the earliest days of America’s COVID-19 catastrophe, the epidemic has put a magnifying glass on the nation’s unresolved problems and poor leadership. Schools all over the country have long been starved for resources, teachers have famously paid from their own meager salaries for classroom materials, and wide socioeconomic and racial divides have presented unfair obstacles to learning and advancement for millions of children.
The virus didn’t create these problems. But any hope of vanquishing the coronavirus threat to American communities requires political and financial commitment to confronting the conditions of U.S. schools, from all government tiers, including in the White House. Without it, few communities will be able to ensure the continued education of the nation’s youth.
Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett