School isn’t due to start in New York City until after Labor Day, but in Georgia some districts began opening last week, even though the state is averaging upward of three thousand new cases of covid-19 a day—more than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. Schools opened in Paulding County, outside Atlanta, despite there being an outbreak among members of a high-school football team.
Students posted photographs of the first days of the term at the high school, showing teen-agers jammed in two-way corridor traffic, most of them without masks. Brian Otott, the county’s school superintendent, said that the crowding did not violate its “protocols” and that “wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.” School administrators did, however, warn students that they would be disciplined if they kept posting “negative” images.
Otott’s statement exhibited defiance, denialism, and a peculiar sort of defeatism—all factors that have contributed to what it is now clear are woefully inadequate preparations to open schools nationwide. In May, as the number of new cases in much of the country was declining, it might have been possible to believe that, by the fall, it would be high time and easy, as President Trump tweeted, to “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!”
Indeed, many people who care deeply about vulnerable populations in ways that he has never shown are desperate to open schools. Children can be less safe at home than they are at school; families can face a crisis if a parent or guardian (often a mother) has to stay with a child rather than go to work.
But as Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, put it last week, when she announced that all school instruction in her city will be remote at least until November, we have now moved to “a very different place in the arc of the pandemic.” Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, and Houston made similar decisions.
In some places, sufficient groundwork simply hasn’t been done. In New York City, which has more than a million students, the virus has ebbed, but Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered an inept plan that relies on staff and equipment that don’t exist and that the city has no plans to pay for, all to give children in-person instruction only one to three days a week. Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, has said that the city’s safety standards are “not enough.”
It remains true, thankfully, that the number of children who die from covid-19 is very small, but they can become quite ill and have high viral loads. (A video of Trump claiming, last week, that children were “almost immune” was taken down by Facebook for violating its policy on dangerous covid-19 misinformation.) And children, particularly older ones, can spread the virus; in Israel, the reopening of middle schools and high schools with relaxed social distancing preceded outbreaks in the wider community.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control of a summer camp in Georgia found at least two hundred and sixty confirmed cases among the some six hundred children and staff members; half the children aged six to ten tested positive, the highest rate of any age group present. Staff had been required to wear masks; campers were not.
The focus on teachers’ safety, and the stand taken by their unions, has provoked some anger—this is, after all, a country willing to mandate that a teacher endanger her life but not that a teen-ager wear a mask. The most thoughtless voices, exemplified by a Wall Street Journal editorial last week entitled “School-Opening Extortion,” dismiss teachers’ fears and accuse them of being little more than pandemic shakedown artists looking to “squeeze more money from taxpayers.”
Others argue that teachers are “essential workers,” and need to take the risks that come with the job, just as health-care or transit or food-industry workers do. But essential workers have every right to insist that sensible measures be taken for their safety. Teachers, because their unions are organized and politically influential, can stand up for themselves in a way that immigrant meatpacking workers cannot; in a sense, that power confers an obligation to speak out and set standards for what any worker in this long pandemic deserves.
Where does all this leave children, parents, and employers? Some families are forming at-home “pod schools” with friends; others are turning to private schools. The public-policy challenge is what will happen to students whose families do not have such resources.
California is exploring a kind of triage, in which some elementary schools open, and older students stay home; there are inventive proposals, such as holding classes outdoors, but that still requires space, staffing, and funding. As grim as it is to say, though, the most practical thing that districts can do may be to improve remote learning, which will be part of the equation in all scenarios.
This spring, “remote instruction” was often a euphemism for “no instruction.” For some children, it involved little more than intermittently watching a screen. Others didn’t even have a screen to watch; in Los Angeles alone, a quarter of a million households with school-age children lacked a computer with broadband.
Even if a home has a digital device, it may be shared by more than one student and by parents working remotely. Attempts to insure that students have what they need to learn have been patchy; as with so many things related to the pandemic, the money isn’t there. Many school systems, including New York City’s, have had their budgets cut. Democrats in Congress have proposed more than four hundred billion dollars in aid to public schools as part of the second pandemic relief bill, while Republicans have sought only a fraction of that.
If there is to be any hope for in-person schooling not only in the fall but in the spring—when a safe vaccine, even if one exists, might not be fully available—a rapid change in course is necessary.
This might include targeted lockdowns, or trading closed restaurants and shops for open schools. It certainly demands a greater financial, political, and community commitment. Several countries, such as Germany and South Korea, have done the work both to beat back the virus and to allow schools to reopen in a reasonably safe manner, with measures such as mandatory masks, small classes, broad testing, and strict distancing.
The United States accomplished neither; as a nation, we wasted the summer, while Trump sowed distrust and promoted heedlessness. What’s left now is to see what can be salvaged. We’re already late for school. ♦
Amy Davidson Sorkin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014. She has been at the magazine since 1995, and, as a senior editor for many years, focussed on national security, international reporting, and features.
(Copied from the New Yorker here)
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