School Reopening: 3 Arguments in Favor and 3 Against
I thought I would take the opportunity today to talk about something that we should all be concerned about—whether we have school-aged children or not—because children, it’s cliche, but they truly are our future, and we should all be concerned about this conversation around school reopening. So in this article I want to talk about three arguments in favor of reopening schools and two arguments against reopening schools so you can make up your own mind on this topic, and please let me know your thoughts on this issue in the comments below.
So school reopening is obviously a hot topic right now, I’m sure a lot of you are coming into this with your own ideas about how schools should be approaching this. There are a lot of ideas here, some people want to reopen like normal, some people want online-only, some people want some kind of hybrid between those two. And I don’t want to tell you whether you’re right or wrong, that’s not what this article is about, but hopefully it will give you some perspective into how different states and different countries are approaching education and what we can expect as we come up on the American school year.
Now of course if you’ve been following Trump’s recent statements you know that he has been pushing hard for schools to reopen for in-person learning. For example, as I told you here on the channel, early in July he floated the idea of withholding federal funding from school districts that didn’t follow that model. And around the same time he tweeted in all caps, and with three exclamation points, SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!
On the other hand, his official statements haven’t always been quite as emphatic, and a statement from July 23rd provides a more nuanced picture of the White House’s perspective. It lays out some of the most persuasive arguments for reopening. Basically the White House plan involves $105 billion in federal funding education, including $70 billion for K-12 of which $35 billion would be reserved for schools that reopened with in-person learning. And in cases where public schools didn’t reopen, Trump wanted to direct funding to families so they could pay for private education, home schooling, some kind of alternative arrangement.
1. We’re not prepared to offer high-quality distance learning
The White House statement I mentioned earlier touched on some of these issues, I won’t have time to cover all of them, but one point that stands out is the question of whether online education will be as helpful as having kids in classrooms. Now part of that is due to the drawbacks of internet learning, and part of it is due to the fact that we weren’t prepared for this. But the reality is that we are not going to be able to bridge that gap, at least in some cases.
For example, Pew Research found earlier this year that even though fifty-eight percent of eighth-graders use the internet for homework all or most days, that option wasn’t necessarily available for every student. In fact fifteen percent of homes with kids in school don’t have a high-speed connection.
That increases to thirty-five percent for low-income households, and only seventy-five percent of children living in those households have access to a computer at home. Now that might not have been as much of an issue when kids had access to computers at school, but obviously that won’t be the case if schools are closed due to COVID-19.
So what that tells me is that a school’s ability to run online classes is really going to depend on the students and the resources they have available. Even with federal funding it will be incredibly difficult to level the playing field between kids who have fast internet and their own laptop and kids who don’t have the same opportunities.
Now I want to clarify that this was true before coronavirus, but of course remote learning exacerbates this issue. So I’m not saying that we’ll send kids back to school and our education system will be perfect and there won’t be any problems. But those problems become even bigger challenges when students, particularly young students, don’t have the chance to learn at school.
To be clear, this isn’t just an argument against reopening. It’s also an argument for expanding access to high-speed internet and making distance learning possible for all American children. Maybe this is a wake-up call, maybe we can use this as an opportunity to improve educational access, but until then there will be real concerns about the quality of online education in the American school system.
2. Parents depend on in-person education
Unfortunately, even if we were able to provide the same level of instruction online, we would still have to meet the gap for working parents.
If you’re a parent and you work a 9-5 job, and you don’t have the opportunity to work remotely, maybe you get home an hour or two after your kid gets home from school. That’s fine, that’s workable, but what about when your kid isn’t going to school? Are they actually going to be doing their schoolwork all day, logging on, or will they just be playing video games all day?
And even if your kid is responsible, with online learning they’ll be spending the day at home, in front of a computer screen instead of at school interacting with other students. Children, especially younger children, need a certain level of social engagement. Yes they’ll still be talking to other kids on Zoom, but it won’t replace the typical school experience. And even if you are a parent who is able to work from home, let’s face it, it is extremely stressful caring for children at home while trying to get your work done.
Also, schools often cover lunch for free or at extremely low rates. School lunch is hot and arguably healthy food, maybe healthy is debatable, but the point is many schools provide lunch for free or extremely cheaply, often cheaper than food you would find at the grocery store.
During a normal school year, American school lunch programs give out low-cost or free lunches to almost 30 million kids every day. That means we’ll need to completely overhaul the school lunch program in order to serve kids at their homes instead of at school. I know Trump and other politicians have talked about federal funding for schools, I don’t want to say there isn’t a solution to this, but I do think it will be an obstacle for districts that try to move classes online. Our society just doesn’t have the infrastructure to allow working parents to leave their children, and it isn’t easy to revamp something like that in a short period of time.
3. Children need to socialize
Reason number three in favor of reopening schools is something I touched on recently, which is the long-term impact on children’s social and emotional development of not going to school and interacting with other children.
Children don’t only go to school to learn their multiplication tables and how to diagram a sentence, but also to learn those vital social skills with their peers. They learn how to manage emotions, how to make friends, how to be a nice person, and while these things can be learned in the home, let’s face it, many kids don’t have a strong support system within their own family. In fact, a 2010 study found that being connected to one’s school and social group there reduced the likelihood of substance abuse, especially among children without a strong family support system.
1. Schools may not be able to reopen for long
Alright, now let’s move on to two arguments against schools reopening this fall. The first argument against is that schools may be forced to close quickly after reopening.
You may have seen the story of the girl in Georgia who took a picture of some of the crowds, kids not wearing masks, she was actually suspended although the suspension was later lifted. And this probably isn’t much of a shocker, but students and teachers had tested positive for coronavirus within a week of the beginning of the school year. The outbreak had been getting worse in Georgia for several weeks before this, so it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when cases started showing up in schools.
So if you open too early when cases are still circulating in your community, it doesn’t matter how much funding Trump promises, the reality is that schools won’t be able to maintain in-person learning if cases are popping up every week. And ultimately it’s a question of whether you’re able to contain the spread, limit the number of new cases, and manage those flare-ups with testing, contact tracing, quarantining, and other strategies.
The key here is that you get things under control first, then you reopen—you can’t just decide to reopen and hope that somehow, miraculously I guess, everyone avoids contracting a disease that has already infected millions of Americans and has picked back up after slowing down in April and May. Of course you can’t keep schools open during an ongoing outbreak, so it’s important to use the data we have to determine in advance whether that’s a possibility and make a decision based on that information.
Some school districts have announced that they’re transitioning to digital learning in anticipation of the shutdowns that will take place if they reopen too early and exacerbate the outbreak. And certain districts that went the other way are ending up back where they started except they spent the whole summer planning for in-person education instead of preparing for the possibility that they could be forced to quickly move to a digital learning environment. So with that in mind I think it could make more sense for districts to start online and consider bringing kids back for in-person learning after case counts drop rather than opening up and closing again during the first weeks of school.
2. Kids can spread COVID-19 even if they don’t get that sick
OK so the next point I want to mention has to do with children spreading COVID-19. Now Trump has really focused on the fact that kids don’t tend to get as sick as adults, particularly older people and people with comorbidities, which are other conditions that make the virus worse.
For example the White House statement pointed out that minors make up less than seven percent of all coronavirus cases, and less than one-twentieth of one percent of all coronavirus deaths. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an expert, but it seems to be true that children are less likely to get COVID-19, and that if they do get it they’re less likely to have a severe case than someone who’s older. One CDC study that was released in April, so early on in the American outbreak, found that less than two percent of reported cases involved minors.
The problem with this logic, well there are a few potential issues, but one obvious one is that just because kids generally get over the virus quickly doesn’t mean they can’t spread it to teachers, family members, friends, and grandparents. If you remember in February and March, people were just starting to talk about social distancing, and it wasn’t just social distancing from older people or people who were in high-risk groups.
Yes that might be better than nothing, but the point of social distancing more generally is to minimize the opportunities the virus has to spread. And even one weak link in that social distance chain could have far-reaching effects. For example in multigenerational households, where you have grandparents or even great-grandparents living with parents and children, it’s obviously conceivable that the ten-year-old child or the forty-year-old parent may contract COVID-19, they may be fine, not fatal, but pass it on to ninety-something great grandma, which obviously poses greater risks.
And of course if the kids start going to school they’re going to be touching desks, hanging out with other students who may not be socially distancing as well at home, well you get the picture. So even if most kids bounce back that doesn’t mean they can’t be vectors for the virus.
There’s some conflicting data here, it’s hard to say exactly what the risks are, but there is some evidence that opening schools has led to outbreaks in other countries. For example one study in Shanghai and Wuhan found that children were about one-third as likely as adults to catch COVID-19 while out of school, but that difference basically disappeared once schools opened. And cases went up by a factor of 30 times after schools reopened in Israel, leading to more than 2,000 school infections including both students and staff.
So not only is there a chance that you’ll be forced to close the schools, but reopening could also pour gas on the fire if you don’t have a really strong hold on the virus. Sure you can close down, but by the time you realize the outbreak is happening all those kids will have potentially infected their parents, grandparents, and other relatives.
In the same way that staying open to save the economy could actually backfire by making the virus worse and delaying the recovery, reopening to save education could have the same effect by making it take even longer to prepare for sustainable in-person learning. And I’m concerned that we’re going to see this play out across the country, that without a clear plan for reopening we could infect thousands or tens of thousands of people for maybe a few weeks of school. Just look at what’s happening worldwide. France, for example, is experiencing record coronavirus outbreaks as schools are reopening and has had to shut down numerous schools as a result, which touches on a point I made earlier.
So this is a complicated issue, and I think the problem is that many people just view the issue through their lens. Maybe an upwardly mobile nuclear family in the suburbs who don’t know anybody who has contracted COVID-19 and they don’t have any comorbidities strongly associated with COVID-19 deaths, they may feel very strongly that schools should reopen. But what the families where a member of the household is older or has some comorbidities or the families where the child has a health condition, they may not be comfortable with their child going back to school.
OK, you say, well give them a choice, let the parents choose, but the issue there is that it’s just not feasible, it would be a nightmare, in many districts to have these two separate tracks, with the majority of children back at school in-person with a minority staying at home. These are complicated issues, and I think as always it’s important to try to view it not only from our immediate, personal perspective but also from the perspective of others who may be experiencing different life circumstances than we are.
Thank you again so much for reading, I really appreciate your time, please be sure to comment your opinions on this issue below, thanks again, and I will see you next time.