SACKS: When The Trump Administration Does What It’s Long Needed to Do, We Can Reopen Schools

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Glenn Sacks Contributor
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that students should not be allowed to return to the classroom in person until precautions have been taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus. You can find a counterpoint here, where Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, argues that students should return to the classroom this fall so they do not fall behind in their education.

“We’re not like you. We don’t have a few people living in a house — we have a lot of people living in a small apartment, next to other small apartments with a lot of people living in them. We live with our grandparents and sometimes great-grandparents. The disease would spread like wildfire in our communities. What about us?”

I didn’t enjoy being scolded by a 17-year-old. The Los Angeles Unified School District had just announced that March 13 would be our last day of school, and I, slow to recognize the severity of the situation, had been thundering against the learning time we would lose. However, particularly in a district where over 80% of our students live at or below the poverty line, my student was absolutely correct.

What was true in March is still true as we approach the school year. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said:

“[T]he fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are probably going to be one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health…We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”

While it appears children’s vulnerability to getting and dying from the virus is relatively low, this is a novel virus, and there are many unanswered questions. New risk factors and symptoms are being discovered, and extraordinarily little is known about long-term effects. CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen said, “children are little disease vectors…while children don’t get as sick from Covid-19 as adults do, they can become seriously ill.”

One study cited by United Teachers Los Angeles showed that even if children are 1/3 as susceptible to infection as adults, opening schools increases the risk similarly because children have three times as many contacts as adults. The researchers estimate that closing schools would reduce the pandemic surge by 40-60%.

Trump has responded to teachers unions’ and school districts’ safety demands by repeatedly threatening to cut off funding for schools that do not fully open. He complains that CDC guidelines for safe schools are “expensive,” and blames opposition to reopening on “Democrats and the radical left.”

Trump cites successful school reopenings in four European countries, yet while the US has 10,312 coronavirus cases per million population, all four countries he cites have significantly fewer cases, including Germany (only 2,386 cases per million), Denmark (2,235) and Norway (1,656). Moreover, the US now leads the world in new cases, and has over 400 times as many as Germany, which has 1/4th our population.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, says schools must reopen, explaining that since shoppers are still going to Home Depot and Walmart, kids “absolutely” can go to school. Yet unless shoppers are sitting side by side in Walmart seven hours a day, five days a week, his analogy hardly seems relevant.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said, “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous” and suggested diverting money away from public schools that don’t reopen towards private school vouchers. In a 20-minute interview, CNN host Dana Bash repeatedly tried and failed to get DeVos to say that schools should follow basic CDC reopening guidelines.

DeVos’ indifference is so egregious she’s even angered some of her staunchest allies. Keri Rodrigues, the president of the National Parents Union — a billionaire-funded pro-charter group dedicated to fighting teachers unions — recently complained:

“It’s as if the Trump administration gave her one sentence that she was supposed to stick to: Open the economy by any means necessary…every move…[is] scrutinized through a political lens…the people who are going to be hurt by this are our children.”

Primary care physician Amy Gordon Bono, speaking for a group of Tennessee doctors facing a state-wide coronavirus spike, said:

“[O]pening the schools under these circumstances is insane and irresponsible. There are no shortcuts. Teachers can’t do their jobs until state leaders do theirs.”

What we need to open schools safely is not rocket science. It includes:

  • The resources to regularly test students and staff and trace and isolate new cases
  • The manpower and equipment to quickly disinfect school buildings
  • Proper, widely available Personal Protective Equipment
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Proper ventilation in classrooms
  • Extra buses to allow for socially distant school transportation, and bus monitors to screen students for symptoms
  • Fulltime nurses in all schools

Between obtaining the manpower and materials needed to follow the CDC’s reopening recommendations while also backfilling revenue-starved states’ education funding cuts, the Council of Chief State School Officers estimates schools need between $158 billion and $245 billion in additional federal support. The Trump Administration and its Senate allies must stop playing this callous game of chicken and do what they needed to begin doing months ago—invest the resources needed to open schools safely.

Glenn Sacks teaches Social Studies and is co-chairman of United Teachers of Los Angeles at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.