The American leadership void
Everyone knows reopening schools is going to be a disaster. So why are we doing it anyway?
The school year is looming on the horizon, despite the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is still raging out of control in almost every state, and most schools do not have one tenth of the resources and preparation necessary to operate safely. Still, American politicians across the country are pushing to get schools back open.
It's yet more evidence of the utter void at the heart of the American leadership class. Few people in positions of authority are willing or capable of governing, and especially not Republicans. They are either deranged maniacs like President Trump, or they are avoiding unpopular decisions in a way guaranteed to fuel the pandemic, simply so that they can shift blame away from themselves.
Getting schools open is obviously a matter of great urgency. The current situation is wearing American families to the bone. Parents report having to juggle work, child care, and distance learning over Zoom is driving them to the breaking point. It follows that being able to open up the schools would be a godsend for both parents, who could go back to work and get a little rest, and kids, who could go back to actually learning, and seeing their friends (even at a distance).
But insofar as schools actually are reopened, it's a virtual certainty that in most cases there will be outbreaks and they will close right back down again. We have already seen multiple outbreaks at summer camps, where both children and staff were infected. Indeed, Israel threw months of pandemic control work in the trash by jumping the gun on schools. The country had new cases down to just a handful per day by early May, and had been carefully experimenting with limited school openings. But in mid-May the Israeli government abruptly reopened the whole school system, and touched off a galloping outbreak across the country. Israel is now in a much worse position than it was in April.
And contrary to some conventional wisdom on the right that kids never get that sick from COVID-19, we know now that occasionally they do, and a few have died. Worse, they definitely can transmit the disease, and will therefore easily pass it on to teachers, school staff, and their families at home, many of whom will be much more vulnerable.
Even Republican governors probably see the writing on the wall here. The pandemic is not going anywhere, Trump is not going to do anything about it, there is neither money nor time to set up schools properly, and therefore it just isn't going to work. But to simply admit defeat would mean attracting a lot of negative attention from conservatives, who insist it's all fake news, and from the people who are just hoping it can work so they can go back to their jobs.
It seems many state leaders, therefore, have settled on pushing forward and letting the outbreaks happen so it won't seem to be their fault that schools can't reopen. At time of writing, plans are afoot for in-person instruction in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In only a handful of states is in-person learning explicitly contingent on local outbreak conditions. On the contrary, Texas Governor Greg Abbott says schools can't be closed unless they have an outbreak. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is also in the process of forcing his state's open. Indiana schools are already partly reopening without even a statewide plan for how they can do so; one infected student has already been reported. It's the same desperate desire to avoid governing that we've seen throughout the pandemic. It isn't primarily state and local leaders' fault that our national response has failed so spectacularly and they aren't being given the resources they need, but it will be their fault if they deliberately allow new outbreaks to happen.
Opening schools properly would require a great deal of effort and money. At a minimum, schools would need new social distancing protocols, mass testing capacity, more staff to decrease class sizes, and ideally upgrades to their internet service (to allow for some distance learning) and HVAC systems (to improve ventilation and prevent air from recirculating). Instead, education budgets are being slashed across the country, and in most places they weren't sufficient in the first place.
Journalist Keith Gessen did a deep dive into the situation in New York, one of the richest states and where the virus is best under control statewide, and found that preparations to avoid outbreaks in schools range from comically inadequate to nonexistent. Cash-strapped schools have measured out new limited-capacity desk configurations, secured some protective gear, and so on, but many old schools don't even have HVAC systems, let alone the money to build them.
It would take hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, extra staff, and new protocols to make this happen safely. Thanks to congressional Republicans' refusal to rescue state budgets, and Governor Andrew Cuomo's desire for austerity instead of tax hikes for the rich, that money is nowhere to be seen — and that's in one of only a few states where the pandemic is under enough control that reopening could even be imagined. Realistically, if the virus is heavily circulating in the wild, as it is in most places, no kind of preparation is going to be good enough. Schools are petri dishes of disease at the best of times.
Teachers, parents, and students aren't taking this lying down, however. As Rachel Cohen reports at The Intercept, they are mobilizing in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Phoenix to demand safe reopenings. As a result, most of the largest school districts (overwhelmingly in Democratic-controlled regions) have already given up on most classroom attendance for the immediate future. Hopefully the rest of them will follow suit before too many people are killed.