Here's why re-opening schools before next spring will be a disaster
We are sprinting toward a large-scale, real-time experiment on America’s health and safety.
The push to re-open schools is on. And it is a mess. The 13,000 school districts across the country have had to navigate shifting state and federal guidance, evolving evidence, and rapidly rising Covid-19 case counts. In recent weeks, forty-three distinct state approaches to schooling this fall have emerged. Almost all of them envision a hybrid model of online and in-person learning for K-12 kids. And most have a significant in-person component.
The desire to re-open is understandable, if not laudable. Notwithstanding the political factors, many parents, doctors, and psychologists have argued that getting kids back in school at least part-time should be a top priority.
But the reality is that the arguments for re-opening rest on thin evidence and assumptions that range from hopeful to totally unrealistic, while conflating the benefits of pre-pandemic schools with the partially re-opened reality that we would see this fall if we push ahead. Combined, the case for re-opening teeters on collapse.
Simply put, it is far from clear that putting millions of American children and teenagers back into schools will be safe, lead to better educational outcomes, provide the support that working families need, or prioritize the right investments.
The case for re-opening schools for in-person instruction rests on four basic arguments. Each of those arguments is worth a closer look.
Argument #1: families need support so parents can go back to work. The links in this logic chain are brittle, if not broken. The first issue is who exactly would be able to go back to work under current re-opening plans. Almost all schools will have students attending in-person only part-time, which most districts are prepared to cut back if local infection rates climb.
This state of partial coverage and week-to-week uncertainty is a total mismatch with the majority of parents who have jobs that do not allow them to control where and when they work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71 percent of wage and salary workers report no ability to work from home, and 43 percent report no flexibility on when they can start and stop working (it is worse for people of color than white people). While employers have been trying to increase job flexibility, there is only so much they can do – it’s impossible to drive a bus, fix a power line, or care for a nursing home patient from home.
For the majority of workers, a part-time and shifting schedule of kids at school offers as much coverage as a mesh umbrella. In a widely-circulated New York Times essay, Deb Perelman noted that “my children will be able to physically attend school one out of every three weeks. At the same time, many adults — at least the lucky ones that have held onto their jobs — are supposed to be back at work…these two plans are moving forward apace without any consideration of the working parents who will be ground up in the gears when they collide.”
"That sets up families for a lot of impossible choices, choices that are felt most among families that are low-income," Katherine Gallagher Robbins, child care and early education director at The Center for Law and Social Policy, told FOX Business.
But this is just a starting point for problems. According to CDC guidance, huge swaths of families should consider excluding themselves from a return to school entirely due to household members with co-morbidities that significantly increase their risk. According to an analysis by researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41 percent of Americans are at higher risk for serious illness or death, either due to age or pre-existing health issues.
That is to say nothing of the likely vastly increased number of day-to-day absences that will have to occur if we follow proper medical guidelines. The CDC says that any school re-opening should require kids and teachers to stay home when sick. But as any parent will tell you, if you kept your kid home every time she or he had run-of-the-mill cold and stomach bug symptoms – a runny nose, cough, slightly elevated temperature, tiredness, or upset stomach – they would rarely actually go to school.
And what happens when people (especially teachers) get any suspected-Covid symptoms? Current medical protocols call for quarantine of potentially exposed people for fourteen days. If these practices are applied with any honesty and consistency, classrooms and whole schools could easily exist in a rotating lockdown mode. Schools abroad have limited such interruptions by establishing “bubbles” of student groups so that the rest of the school can continue functioning, but those countries have much lower rates of infection so the chances of a particular bubble having to quarantine are much lower. In some US states, schools could easily have multiple bubbles popping at the same time.
How can a parent commit to an employer that they will be available if they are relying on schools to look after their kids under these conditions? It could be argued that having coverage for your kids two days a week is better than zero days a week, except there’s really no obvious solution for the other three days (if you have access to, say, nearby grandparents, is it wise to have kids shuttle from their schools one day to your elderly parents the next?), and there is no guarantee that you will even consistently get the two days you think you have.
Argument #2: this is safe. There are two questions here: the health and safety of children, and the health and safety of everyone else – parents, teachers, and the extended community.
The good news is that the evidence is fairly solid on how rarely kids get sick from this coronavirus and how dangerous it is to them. The consequences for children are not zero: the CDC has tracked 29 deaths in children under age 15 among the 130,000 total in the US, and we continue to know little about the longer term health consequences of Covid infections in children. But the risk is well-enough established that 70 percent of the 304 epidemiologists surveyed by the New York Times said that they would send their own children to school this fall.
The bad news is that the evidence on how often kids transmit the disease to everyone else is still very preliminary. As Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Washington Post: “The data that is clear is that children do not get serious consequences of infection compared to adults. That’s a fact. Everything else is less secure. It is more anecdotal.”
As Brown economist Emily Oster has shown, we simply do not have reliable data to go on yet. Most of what we do have is based on reports from U.S. child care facilities and other countries' experiences, which are mixed and may not fully apply to the US. Indications from countries like Germany and Sweden are encouraging. Indications from Israel are much less so. Almost half of all of that country’s new infections last week were contracted in schools.
Moreover, we remain very unclear about what aspects of other countries’ approaches are both beneficial and replicable in the US. We do not know if constant testing, consistent mask-wearing, careful distancing, physical barriers in schools, phased opening, or all of those factors in combination is important. Suffice it to say, our ability to do many of those things, let alone sustain them, remains highly questionable (researchers cite the failure to keep these measures going as one possible cause of Israel’s problems).
We also do not know if our far greater ethnic diversity (non-white US populations appear to be at greater risk of both getting sick and experiencing severe illness) and much higher overall infection rates would make a US school re-opening different. Relative infection rates in EU countries cited as re-opening models are 20-40 times lower than ours, while Israel with its much choppier school re-opening experience is currently almost the same as ours.”
At this point, we can say with confidence that if our kids are back in schools, they are themselves likely to face a level of risk that is low enough to be tolerable for most families. There is very little that we can say with scientific confidence about the health and safety for everyone else.
Argument #3, it’s better for kids. Kids learn in schools. It’s where they make friends. Highly influential guidance issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) asserted that the importance of in-person learning is "well-documented."
But the actual evidence for the necessity of being physically present in school is a lot fuzzier, if not totally contradictory. According to Susanna Loeb, professor of education and public affairs at Brown University and the director of the university's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, there is some evidence that in-person learning is better on average than online learning. But a meta-analysis of all available research from the U.S. Department of Education found the opposite, concluding that, “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
Not only is the jury still out, it is still hearing the case. As Dr. Loeb wrote earlier this year: “only a little research has assessed the effects of online lessons for elementary and high school students.”
The AAP is only able to make their declaration about in-person versus online learning with so little public questioning because what we all have in mind – with a good deal of recency bias – is the crash effort this past spring to erect online learning programs on the fly as an emergency stopgap. It was hardly successful. But much of the “online learning” this spring started with setting families loose on a list of websites and emailing home some worksheets. In many cases, it never progressed much beyond that. Fewer than 20 percent of schools actually provided virtual classroom instruction, let-alone the kind of interactive learning tools that are the gold standard of remote learning.
As just one example of what that gold standard can do, consider Waterford.org, a Utah-based not-for-profit that develops interactive education software aimed at kids in the pre-K-6 range. They operate a program called Upstart across 15 states that is particularly successful in teaching early literacy and math. Data have consistently shown that children in the program show the same or better academic gains (as well as, interestingly, social-emotional development) as children enrolled in high-quality public and private preschools. The US Department of Education has been working to expand the program to more states as fast as possible, and Upstart was chosen as one of 8 big, bold ideas for global change by The Audacious Project.
And if you are thinking that this only works for rich, white kids, the opposite is true. The program is aimed at poor, rural, nonwhite populations, and has been equally effective in inner-city Philadelphia, rural Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta. Upstart even provided a laptop, solar panel for power, and satellite internet connection for a child on a remote Indian reservation. Dr. Benjamin Heuston, Waterford’s CEO, says that the program is all about using the best available technology and putting it in the hands of teachers to make them as effective as possible: “We started by asking why wouldn’t we use 21st century tools to solve 21st century problems? This is all about giving teachers and parents the best modern tools to do their job.”
This is not to argue that all online learning tools are equally effective or immediately scalable to all 56.6 million K-12 students in the US (though Khan Academy videos are widely available and have been shown to be effective in improving math performance across populations). But it is not quite right to assess remote learning on the basis of schools’ noble but shambolic scramble this spring, nor to assume that students have to be physically in the school to learn from teachers.
We should also be leery of the assumption that school in the fall will be the same experience that we are used to. It won’t. Teachers will be physically distant – whether at the front of a class or over video – and so will peers. It is unclear if kids will get the same psychological and social benefit of interacting with their friends if they are doing it from six feet away, behind masks, in carefully controlled settings that avoid large group interactions, and in pre-arranged bubbles.
Finally, it is important to address the AAP’s point that a lack of access to support services in schools could lead to negative outcomes for many students. This is no small matter: our kids get everything from psychological counseling to hot meals through our schools, and these are critical considerations. However, access to school services does not require reopening all of the schools. School districts have taken a number of approaches to preparing and distributing lunches to the 30 million kids who receive them. Other services can be provided remotely, in settings outside the school, or in small, targeted groups of students. Clearly, these are not ideal solutions and do not provide the same level of support as before the pandemic. But given that almost all school re-opening plans only have students in schools part of the time anyway, schools will need work-arounds for delivering these services no matter what.
Argument #4: We are prioritizing the right investments.
In order to re-open schools safely, CDC guidelines assume physical modifications in schools to enforce physical distancing, limit group sizes, and provide adequate ventilation. They assume consistent mask-wearing and the availability of testing when needed.
But many school districts do not have the funds or time to modify their physical infrastructure. “Grave” shortages of personal protective equipment are flaring across the country, calling into question whether there will be enough for schools. Lack of lab capacity is slowing test results so significantly that public health personnel and patients cannot get the information they need fast enough to do meaningful contact tracing and isolation.
The more fundamental issue is that – and this cannot be stressed often enough – all of these investments must be made in service of a part-time re-opening plan. Except for a handful of places, in most of America, our kids will be doing the majority of their school online this fall. Two of the largest school districts in the country just announced that they will start the year with distance learning only.
That means remote learning needs to be the first priority, not an afterthought once we figure out how to arrange kids’ desks. As Dr. Heuston put it: “so much of the effort so far has focused on how to get kids into the schools for thirty or forty percent of the time, and so little has been put into how to make the rest of the time – the majority of the time – as beneficial as possible.”
So much of the focus has been on building a bridge back to what used to be, rather than looking forward to what should be. But student achievement was sputtering and working families were gasping to keep up well before the lockdowns. “Covid created many new problems, but it also shone a bright light on challenges our government has long failed to address," said Julie Kashen, director of women's economic justice for The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. "School schedules already did not match work schedules. The United States, unlike the rest of the world, chose not to invest in child care or paid leave over the last several decades, leaving women to bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities. That didn't change during the pandemic."
So perhaps instead of spending tens or hundreds of billions of dollars simply to get back to a pale imitation of where we were, we should be devoting more time and resources on trying to get where should be.
Dr. Heuston of the Waterford Institute says that he can provide a laptop, internet connection and coaching to students and teachers at an upper bound cost of $2,000 per student, though he notes that true costs at scale would be a fraction of that, because many kids already have internet access and the cost of coaching is less when partnering with school districts and their teachers. At about four million students per grade level in the US, that means that we could provide a high quality remote learning tool (and there are many others besides Waterford) to all elementary school students for $20-$50 billion, or about 1-3 percent of the cost of the CARES Act passed in March.
Whatever inequalities exist among school districts, they are exceeded by inequalities among families (low poverty districts only spend 15.6% more than high poverty districts). In order to level the existing disparities in opportunity and in measured achievement between affluent kids and those from low-income households, students must have equal access to the same high-quality learning environment. The traditional school model – for myriad reasons including funding – has not achieved that. Enhanced learning leveraging technology shows more promise to do so.
And again, one more time, remote learning is happening this fall. It will be the majority of schooling for the majority of our kids. Shouldn’t we be prioritizing that in our thinking?
There’s an alternative to rushing re-open schools with insufficient planning and an unrealistic expectation of the benefits while a pandemic rages out of control across states.
Right now, Congress is considering another aid package. We have already spent $1.76 trillion. But economists believe that the long-term risks of spending at this level (and borrowing during a period of such low interest rates) in terms of the national debt are limited, and pale in comparison with the need to keep the economy going now.
So why not do it again? Why not keep our economy on intensive federal life-support for an additional 4-6 months at a similar cost? If the point of re-opening schools is to get people back to work so that we can re-open the economy, and if rapid re-opening is a prime cause of this summer’s Sunbelt Resurgence of Covid, why does anyone think that a national enterprise of widespread and rapid economic re-opening is a good idea?
It is true that many aspects of the CARES Act were clunky, wasteful, and poorly designed. But with five months of lessons learned under our belt, we could do better. We could also provide the funds that state and local governments desperately need. We could provide expanded long-term paid leave, in addition to unemployment insurance and aid to small businesses. We could provide targeted assistance to larger businesses. We could expand the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit to provide more support to people with kids who are able to work only limited hours. We could invest in ensuring broadband access to every student. Really, the only limit to what we can do is what we impose on ourselves based on partisan politics.
Just as important as buying ourselves more time is what we do with it. There is a significant chance that by next spring, we might have one or several Covid vaccines, therapies, or preventive treatments. Former Obama health administrator Andy Slavitt recently tweeted a “slew of good news” based on discussions with scientists, leaving him somewhat optimistic about a “light at the end of the tunnel.” Cautions abound, and even if these medicines are partially effective, rolling them out widely would take years. But the prospect of treating teachers as “essential workers” and giving them the enhanced protections they deserve – along with vulnerable family members back home – is worth the effort.
And we could be shifting to a more thoughtful, strategic, long-term approach to school in the Covid Age--not just returning to the classroom but renewing and reinvigorating our schools. Rather than spending every available dollar planning a partial re-opening and building plexiglass shields in classrooms, states and school districts could focus on a phased buildup of remote learning plans (our 13,000 school districts might even talk to one another and share best practices). By the start of the Spring students, teachers, and school administrators would be far more accustomed to a robust remote learning environment (and we could move more classes outside through the summer, where they are much safer, and likely save on physical construction costs in schools), and there would be sufficient time to understand how to pair online tools with in-person classes in an effective, complementary way going forward. We can also start the longer-term project of considering how to invest in the kinds of child care and after school coverage that actually supports parent work schedules.
This is far from a perfect solution for families, students, or communities. But the re-opening plans on the table today are much worse for everyone, and do not offer the upside of investing in a long-term where we may be living with this pandemic for some time, and where we need to provide more effective, modern education for our kids and more balanced support for families.
We don’t have to stay on the course we are on. We still have a chance to do something better.