Opinion

How America could have kept schools open

Congress allocated $190 billion to schools for pandemic response. What happened?

Schools across the country are shutting down again. The spectacular surge of Omicron cases has left thousands of teachers and students sick, and many others quite logically fear infection or spreading the virus to their immunocompromised relatives or unvaccinated young children. In some places, teachers unions are demanding a short break to let the wave at least pass — in Chicago, for instance, teachers voted to return to remote classes until January 18.

This turn of events has driven a number of centrist and liberal commentators to distraction, if not full-blown derangement. Shutdowns have "been less defensible for the past year and a half, as we have learned more about both COVID and the extent of children's suffering from pandemic restrictions," writes David Leonhardt at The New York Times. "Moving to remote learning at this point is not responsible," economist Emily Oster said on CNN. Elections data geek Nate Silver said in a Twitter argument with Mother Jones' Clara Jeffrey that school closures generally were possibly a worse mistake than the Iraq war (!).

It should be emphasized that, at this point, for many schools, some kind of closure is simply unavoidable. It's a matter of mechanical reality — if all the servers and cooks at a restaurant fall sick at the same time, it will close down for a bit no matter how much the owner yells and stamps his feet. Likewise, a school can't operate if so many teachers are out sick there is no one to manage the classrooms. That reality doesn't change though parents really need child care and children really need education.

Still, at least some of these closures probably could have been headed off. In particular, a crash program of improving ventilation and air filtration starting in March of last year (or earlier) could have made schools much safer — or even forestalled the worst school-based outbreaks we see happening today. By and large, that didn't happen.

Admittedly, building out an all-new HVAC system for a large school is an expensive and lengthy undertaking, but many cheaper options were available. Placing high-grade HEPA filters in every hallway and classroom wouldn't have cost much and might have taken only a couple weeks while schools were empty anyway. Buying up stocks of child-sized N95 or similar masks (as it seems most kids are still wearing crummy cloth masks or ill-fitting surgical ones) would have been even cheaper and easier. Stockpiling testing kits over the summer for the inevitable winter surge could have helped avoid transmission. And if schools had started HVAC upgrades last March, by now they might be finished.

There was a lot of money available for this. Federal pandemic rescue bills contained some $190 billion in funds for schools, an average of about $1.5 million per public school explicitly earmarked for pandemic response.

So what happened? It seems most of the money disappeared into the black hole of American federalism.

ProPublica attempted to find out some months ago, only to discover the Department of Education is barely keeping track, in large part because it doesn't have the staff or organizational capacity to directly oversee thousands of school districts. The feds delegated oversight to the states, most of which sent out money willy-nilly with little direction or focus on air quality.

In Iowa, one district spent $231,000 upgrading its outdoor stadium. A Kentucky school spent $1 million replacing its track and field facilities. A Texas school spent $5 million on a "5-acre outdoor learning environment connected to a local nature and birding center" that won't be finished until 2024. As of September, many other districts hadn't spent all their money yet, in part thanks to confusing federal rules.

Even before the pandemic, numerous school ventilation upgrades have gone wrong — a recent study looked at 104 classrooms with recently-retrofitted HVAC systems and found half in poor condition. As any homeowner with central air conditioning knows, proper HVAC installation is an obnoxious and finicky business. Probably the majority of centrally-heated homes do not have good ducting where every room gets a size-appropriate supply of treated air with no hot or cold spots, and doing HVAC right is even more difficult in a big school building.

The situation clearly called for a centralized plan by the national government focused specifically on ventilation, with oversight and expertise deployed to that end and intense pressure applied to get things completed as fast as possible (kind of like how New Dealers built dams in the Pacific Northwest). Well-publicized grants to every school, with clear requirements and detailed instructions about proper installation, might have done it.

We didn't do that — or anything close. It's a perfect microcosm of the broken American state. When the polity is crying out for bold leadership and nationwide coordination on something incredibly important and time-sensitive, we had feds handing money to the states, who hand it to local districts, who aimlessly spend it on more or less whatever they feel like. Some do the right thing, most don't, or simply can't.

All this makes the current hysteria over school reopenings rather mysterious. We didn't see this kind of frenzied hyperbole over ventilation a year ago, when it might have been useful. Instead there's this manic insistence that we can too jam the kids back into school without worrying about it or making any serious preparations first — and not for the first time. As Rachel Cohen wrote at The American Prospect in October 2020, Oster in particular has been pushing this line for most of the pandemic.

For years now, education has been a central focus of attention among neoliberal centrists and Democrats as an all-purpose remedy for poverty, inequality, and class stratification. ("It is the most powerful force for accelerating economic growth, reducing poverty, and lifting middle-class living standards," Leonhardt wrote in 2017.) Oligarch education "reformers" have spent billions on schemes to turn impoverished inner-city districts into genius factories by privatizing the schools, making teachers easier to fire, brutally hazing the students, or other similar schemes.

In terms of educational outcomes, the effects were mixed at best. But politically, education monomania has the handy property of deflecting attention from policies that actually could ameliorate poverty and inequality — namely, the welfare state and taxing the rich. Pretending inequality was the result of "human capital" produced by education further tended to suggest rich people got that way because of their talent and training, not because of a rigged economy. It's all part and parcel of the neoliberal mindset picturing the government as a toxic imposition on the self-regulating economy, a burden to be minimized wherever possible.

Unfortunately, that same attitude is also at the root of why the government today can't tie its shoes. So instead of two weeks of semi-remote education being an unfortunate but rather mild consequence for yet another pandemic response goof, we have people reacting to these new, temporary closures with unhinged meltdowns. A hysterical exaggeration of the importance of schooling, and hence keeping kids in classrooms at all costs, is a central pillar in an ideological framework that is very convenient to a lot of very rich and powerful people.

And don't get me wrong, education is important. But when it becomes the be-all, end-all policy solvent for every social problem, we ironically end up with a government so incompetent it can't even keep the schools open when it needs to most.

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