Opinion

I'm not ready to send my kid back to school

The evidence suggests schools are safe, but we're staying home for a little while longer

It's not easy being a parent during the pandemic. On Tuesday afternoon, while I tried to do a phone interview for work, my 12-year-old son started practicing cello in the next room — not all that softly — for his public school's virtual orchestra class. Needless to say, it was a distraction. After a year of living, working, studying, and generally being on top of each other in a smallish living space, both he and I are ready for the public health crisis to end so he can go back to his classroom, his teachers, and his friends.

But not quite yet — at least not until his teachers and, hopefully, his parents have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Not everybody is so patient. In my home state of Kansas, Republican legislators this week introduced a bill that would require all public schools to fully reopen for full-time K-12 instruction starting next month, taking the decision out of the hands of local school boards. The bill is part of a broader national effort by the GOP to put Democrats and teachers unions on the defensive with an appeal to harried parents who understandably worry that their kids are falling behind.

"It's the teachers unions that want to keep the schools closed," Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said last week.

The desire to get kids back to class is bipartisan, though. President Biden has vowed to get at least 50 percent of the nation's schools reopened by the 100th day of his administration, though "reopening" in this case means students would be in the classroom a minimum of one day a week. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who was once the target of "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" tweets from then-President Donald Trump — is pushing her schools to offer at least some in-person instruction by March 1. Even the American Federation of Teachers says its membership largely supports a return to in-person attendance. With COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations dropping across the country, the "back to school" train is picking up steam.

On an intellectual level this makes a lot of sense to me. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that students' academic and social well-being has been harmed by the time away from the classroom. Some kids are falling behind who might never catch up, and those students will be disproportionately Black and brown. The evidence also suggests that in-person instruction can be safe — where schools have reopened with masking requirements, social distancing, and improved ventilation systems in place, the CDC has found, there has been "minimal" transmission of the virus.

"Teachers are understandably scared. After all, school kids are not known for avoiding germs and following every rule. But fear is different from science," the conservative columnist Tim Carney wrote recently in The New York Times. "The science tells us that schools can be opened safely and that kids need in-person school."

So why am I so hesitant to send my own son back to school?

Honestly, some of it might be a little bit of Donald Trump hangover. Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, Trump called for schools to reopen immediately — promising that it was safe for teachers and students. At the same time, he was refusing to mask up, while falsely promising that the end of the pandemic was right around the corner. He seemed to see school closures as a personal political attack rather than a rational response to a public health disaster. The current Republican campaign seems like more of the same.

But that excuse can only go so far. Trump isn't president anymore, obviously, and "if Republicans want it, it must be bad" is a terrible way to make big life decisions. But if my fear of resuming school isn't entirely rational, perhaps it is at least understandable. More than half a million people have died from COVID-19, and a great many more have been sickened — perhaps for the long term. New variants of the virus continue to rear their heads. At least one study shows that in-person instruction has been most common in places where COVID cases have been highest, though the causation isn't clear. We have been told, repeatedly and urgently, to avoid large gatherings in enclosed spaces, and what is in-person schooling except the exact opposite of the advice that has been drilled into us for a year?

Perhaps my calculations would be different if we were looking at another year or more of distance learning — if the pandemic became more or less the permanent state of things. That doesn't seem to be the case. Vaccinations are underway, and if all goes well, most adults who want a vaccine will have it by the time summer vacation is over. We appear to finally be much closer to the end of this disaster than the beginning. I don't want my family, or my son's teachers, to get this close to the finish line only to stumble at the end.

A lot of parents seem to agree. One recent poll suggests 55 percent of voters believe states should vaccinate teachers before reopening schools — and those majorities are even bigger among Black, Hispanic, and Asian parents. Some states are rightly moving teachers to the front of the vaccination line. There is no such thing as zero risk in life, but I suspect that by the time the 2021-22 school year begins, I will be able to let my son join his classmates. For now, we try to be patient just a little bit longer.

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