National Policy
July 12, 2022

Re-open the Schools!

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On Friday March 13th, schools were shut down due to the increasing urgency to fight against coronavirus. Six months later and some students are still confined to their homes, while numerous schools continue to close for the remainder of the academic year. Despite this, many administrators have anticipated a return that -for the most part- never happened. Millions of students, the vast majority enrolled in public schools, are still engaged in “e-learning,” school on the computer using apps like Zoom or Google Meets--a poor substitute for an education. To make matters worse, the limits of e-learning are not experienced equally among all students. Low-income students, disproportionately black and brown, face particular struggles, widening the equity gap that educators say they  are committed to narrowing. This shouldn’t be happening when it is safe to open schools in many if not most areas of the country. It’s a shame that the futures of American youth have become so entangled in senseless partisan politics. 

For every school that is still closed in America, somebody has made the determination to keep it closed. Some states are leaving it up to district superintendents, while certain governors have issued orders. How should these important decisions be made? Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Joseph Priestley (a philosopher, chemist, and inventor), referenced his own decision making process in an attempt to give Priestley advice about weighty choices. Simply put, Franklin’s methodology was to make a two column chart of pros and cons. Then, using his own unique evaluation process, he would “calculate” whether the pros outweighed the cons, or whether the cons outweighed the pros. Franklin's meticulous scrutiny can helpfully be applied to the decision at hand -- should schools reopen? A careful analysis reveals that many leaders who are keeping schools closed are extremely misguided in doing so. 

Ask anyone opposed to the reopening of schools why they hold their stance, and they will invariably point to the health risks presented by in-person classes in the midst of a pandemic. This concern overlooks the fact that sensible advocates of school reopening support holding in-person classes only to the extent that they fall within the Center for Disease Control (CDC) school reopening guidelines laid out in August. For example, if a school had a uniform class size of thirty, yet all its classrooms consisted of six hundred square feet of space, the school would be completely justified in employing a model where students would attend class one out of every three days in order to maintain the requisite six feet of distance between students. Some may argue that this model, or hybrid learning, as it is dubbed, isn’t all that different from e-learning and that, therefore, it makes sense to completely eliminate all risk in favor of e-learning over hybrid learning.  But any opportunities for students to learn in the classroom make a difference, as teachers can reverse the isolation and alienation caused by e-learning by getting to know their students better, as well as by checking in on those who are falling behind (more on this later). 

Additionally, kids are significantly less impacted by the Coronavirus than adults, in terms of how likely they are to contract it, how likely they are to experience symptoms, and how likely they are to pass it on to others. A study out of the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that “people under twenty [are] about half as susceptible to infection as people over twenty.” And when the virus is contracted, only about 20% of people under twenty actually have symptoms manifest (that figure ranges to about 70% for individuals age seventy and above). In the rare cases where symptoms are present in youth, the virus is rarely fatal. School age children are 18-27 times less likely to be hospitalized and 64-160 times less likely to die due to the Coronavirus than their parents. 

In schools that have successfully opened this fall, safety measures have obviously been implemented; masks, social distancing, and ventilation to name a few. It is easy to forget that, when schools set these procedures in place, they recognize that their students may get the Coronavirus -- after all, if school plans were contingent on the unrealistic proposition that students would never get sick, they would not take the time or spend the money to establish a safety protocol designed to prevent transmission within the building. Thus, sporadic Coronavirus cases within a school should not suffice to close that school; rather, an investigation should be made into whether or not the virus spread at school. If more schools focused on this question, they would realize that intracampus spread is extraordinarily rare. Data collected by Brown University Economist Emily Oster and Qualtrics (a technology company) with a substantial sample size revealed an infection rate of 0.13%. To provide some context, in a 1,000 student school with that infection rate, about one new case would occur every two weeks. In interpreting the data, Oster concludes that many more schools should currently be open. 

Ideally, we would want that number to be zero, but 0.13% is pretty close. And returning to Benjamin Franklin’s decision making framework, remember that we have only examined one aspect of the debate surrounding reopening schools: the minimal cons. It is now time to acknowledge the pros of reopening -- that is, the real costs of keeping schools closed.  Once we consider these costs, the appropriate decision becomes even more apparent. 

Unsurprisingly, lower income children have been disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of e-learning. In Detroit, nearly a quarter of all students did not log into e-learning in the first week of school, largely due to the fact that one fifth of all American students don’t have adequate technology. Not only is this suboptimal for learning, but it deprives teachers of the ability to check on their students’ home lives. Teachers are mandated reporters in most states, meaning that they are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the proper authorities. These are serious problems. At least one in seven American children has been a victim of abuse or neglect in the past year, and e-learning won’t improve this figure. 

As a result of lower attendance rates, test scores, which measure academic progress, have slipped as well. Even though last academic year contained only three months or less of e-learning, NWEA, a large testing company, estimates that going into the fall, American students made only 70% of reading progress and less than 50% of math progress that they were expected to make in the previous year. Students are learning less, and their experience is much less enjoyable. Pediatricians have determined that e-learning is clearly linked to stress. 

Schools often pride themselves on their commitment to advancing equity, particularly racial equity. Many suggestions have been made about how to do this, including reforms to disciplinary policies and dress codes. But the biggest driver of equity in education is the institution of schools themselves. When people push for equity while simultaneously pushing for the closing of schools, they are hurting their own cause. No one should be content with limited equity -- equity only when it’s convenient to carefully selected data. 

Unfortunately, this all ties back to partisan politics. President Trump has always said he is pro reopenings, and that includes schools. On July 7th, he took a particularly strong stance on the issue, going so far as to threaten the revocation of federal funding to schools if they did not reopen. Trump’s positions were extreme. They lacked an awareness of the need for safety measures, and they ignored the reality that certain schools in districts with high positivity rates simply could not reopen safely. But the legitimacy of reopening schools didn’t suddenly wane just because Trump started supporting it. In the eyes of many in charge of these critical decisions, Trump’s unhelpful rhetoric seemed to take reopening off the table, and that’s a major problem. 

If Benjamin Franklin was alive in 2020, and he somehow ran a school, he would surely use his technique to make the decision about how he would operate it. Should it reopen? He would rip a piece of paper into halves, draw a line down the middle of one, and think. On one side, a short list of cons would take shape. There would be a tiny risk of Coronavirus transmission. But Franklin would find much more information to put on the other side; the contents of this article, and more. He would quickly realize that his school needed to reopen, and his students would start learning again.