Opinion

Republicans are risking lives to reopen schools

Why the rush to get kids back in classrooms is so dangerous

Some Republicans are so desperate for the coronavirus pandemic not to be a thing that the party's leading elected officials are proving themselves ready, willing, and able to gamble with the health of America's children, their teachers, and families.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Friday demonstrated the GOP's breathtaking callousness on the matter, telling a St. Louis radio program that the state's schools should reopen this fall even though kids will certainly get sick as a result.

"These kids have got to get back to school," Parson said. "They're at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they're not going to the hospitals. They're not going to have to sit in doctor's offices. They're going to go home and they're going to get over it."

Parson isn't alone among Republicans in downplaying the problems that could come with opening schools. On Monday, the Florida Education Association filed suit against Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to block his efforts — despite a massively surging COVD-19 case load — to force open that state's schools. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton has declared it unconstitutional for the state to close down religious schools. And in my home state of Kansas, Republicans competing for the party's nomination for Congress in the 3rd District backed a proposal to withhold federal dollars from school districts that don't bring children back to the classrooms.

"We need to get back to school right now," said one of the candidates, Mike Beehler. "Get on with football season. Get on with the marching band. Get on with educating our children to be competitive in the workplace around the world."

There is a problem with Beehler's logic: It is difficult to be competitive when you're sick, or worse, dead.

It's true that COVID-19 doesn't appear to be as deadly for children as it is for adults. In most pediatric cases, symptoms are relatively mild. But that isn't the end of the story. Kids, especially older kids, are still vectors for this disease, and can pass it to adults — including vulnerable teachers, administrators, other parents. With this in mind, it becomes clear that GOP leaders are being much too casual in their back-to-school rush.

A study of 65,000 children in South Korea recently revealed that kids in the 10-19 age range can infect other people just as efficiently as adults. "Putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person," one epidemiologist told The New York Times. Middle and high school classrooms could easily become the epicenters of new COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities. No wonder a recent poll shows most Americans are uncomfortable with sending their children back to school.

Missouri's Parson should know this as well as anyone. His state has been home to several notorious outbreaks among young people, including one traced to end-of-year events (like prom and graduation) that infected 19 students at a Catholic school, and another at a sleepaway Christian camp that infected 82. And teachers have already made sacrifices in order to serve children — three educators in Arizona who shared a classroom all got sick this summer, and one of them died. Sending kids back to school would surely result in a parade of such unnecessary tragedies.

There are good reasons to want schools to reopen. The lost time of in-person instruction will surely affect today's students down the line. For many kids, online learning is no replacement for the physical classroom. I really don't look forward to wrangling my own energetic seventh grader to focus on his studies this fall. All too many families don't even have that option, because they lack access to digital education tools. The toll on parents' careers will be terrible.

"Millions of parents can't return to work if their children can't attend school," The Wall Street Journal editorialized earlier this month. "Opening the schools is essential to the well-being of students, and teachers and administrators have a duty to make it happen."

It is difficult to trust that Republicans — and the pro-opening brigade seems mostly to belong to the GOP — have their hearts in the right place. President Trump seems more interested in defending Confederate monuments than living, breathing humans; his administration is actively working against funding for testing and tracing that might make it easier to safely reopen schools. And conservative leaders seem ready to sacrifice the lives of others for monetary gain: Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has suggested older Americans should be willing to die for the economy. Trump has usurped local authorities in order to keep open meatpacking plants, which are hothouses of coronavirus transmission. Now those same officials are ready to let families and teachers take big risks in the name of getting back to business.

The ugly truth is that there are no good answers. The coronavirus looms large over every possible option. I won't judge any parent who weighs the evidence and decides to send their child back to class, even though I am choosing to keep my son home. Keeping schools closed will cause harm to children and their families. Opening them will probably do the same. We should acknowledge the costs of both choices. But too many Republican leaders seem indifferent to the costs. Are you willing to gamble your family's lives hoping that they are right?

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