Reopening Schools: How Partisan Politics Put Our Children at Risk
The current battle over children and reopening schools in the throws of a growing pandemic is both complex and dangerous. There are valid concerns on both sides of the argument, but hyper-politicization is preventing the nation from having a productive debate, leaving our children hanging out there as pawns.
In a virtual press conference held Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said:
“If it’s not safe to do so, schools shouldn’t reopen in a way that would put students or staff in harm’s way.”
The stance walks back guidelines issued by the state last month, then outlining how schools could reopen safely. Much has changed since June.
Despite substantial early efforts to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in California, the state is now reporting 349,180 confirmed cases, according to the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. More than 100,000 of those cases have been added to the state’s cumulative total since July 1.
The spike in California is massive, but it is in line with what most states have been experiencing over the course of the past two weeks. Concerns over the surge in case and hospitalization rates comes at a critical moment for schools struggling to figure out whether they should open for in-person instruction, proceed with distance learning or adopt a hybrid model.
In reality, there are pros and cons to each option. Without a doubt, school closures prompted by the virus outbreak have negatively impacted many children. The sudden rollout of distance learning was chaotic at best and detrimental at worst. Parents were thrust into teaching roles they weren’t prepared for. Many students lacked access to technology needed for online instruction. Teachers themselves floundered with little guidance and students were given confusing and conflicting information from one class to the next. Simply, there were no clear expectations for either the teaching staff or students.
Pressure and anxiety mounted due to general family stress over financial insecurity and the inability of adults or children to socialize with people outside their immediate households. Nothing in that dire set of circumstances lends itself to learning success.
But, we have had since at least mid-March to develop better plans and improve distance learning procedures. That’s not to say each district has used the time wisely.
Now, as we are just weeks away from the beginning of the school year, the pandemic the president said would fade away is raging across the nation. States that were barely on the radar in April are now finding their hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients. Reopening plans have been paused or rolled back in several states run by both Democrat and Republican governors. The health crisis has proven to be nonpartisan. Unfortunately, the national response to the pandemic has devolved into political campaign rhetoric.
Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have effectively threatened school funding if classrooms aren’t fully packed with students at the beginning of the school year. They have also rejected much of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance regarding face coverings and social distancing in school settings.
Trump has accused Democrats of purposely keeping schools closed for political advantage in an election year, turning what should be science-driven policy decisions into partisan ideological warfare.
We are repeatedly told that children are not at risk of severe Covid-19 illness and data largely, though not entirely, supports that. However, children can and do contract the virus and despite their low rates of illness and death, they can spread it without showing symptoms. The California Department of Public Health reports that children 17 years old and younger represent 8.4 percent of the state’s confirmed cases, though they rarely result in serious illness or death. But resistance to Covid-19 illness among children is dependent on several factors, including age group and underlying conditions.
According to the Mayo Clinic, about 4 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 15 who have contracted the virus experience severe or critical illness. That rate jumps up to 7 percent among kids ages 1 to 5. Many children in that age range attend preschool and are notorious for carrying and sharing germs. Infants are severely impacted by the virus in about 11 percent of cases. The danger really lurks when school-aged children live with infants, pregnant women, elders or siblings with compromised immune systems.
We also need to consider health risks for teachers and other staff that make the education system work on a daily basis. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 30 percent of U.S. public school teachers are 50 years old or older. At this point in the pandemic, it is common knowledge that risk increases with age.
Attempting to find an effective way to educate children while preserving their health and safety and the health and safety of those around them is complicated. Forging the best path forward requires that we have difficult discussions based on science and facts, while also acknowledging the challenges students, teachers and families face. There is no perfect or one size fits all solution, and our federal government should not be trying to force one.
In West Contra Costa County, where cases in Richmond have dramatically increased, the school district recently announced that classes would be handled exclusively online at the beginning of the year. That decision is based on real data and is aimed at protecting the area’s young and adult population until the virus is under control.
Each district across the nation should feel empowered to do what’s right for right now, without threat of funding cuts or political assassination. The virus is apolitical and our response, especially when it comes to our children, should follow suit.