Editor’s Note: Barbara Kantrowitz is a senior editor at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
In the next few weeks, public schools in the US will embark on a grand experiment, balancing the safety of 51 million students with their academic, social and emotional needs. The coronavirus pandemic forced schools across the country to switch to remote learning this spring. Now administrators and politicians have to figure out how to reopen this fall with the virus still raging. The result could topple the already fragile ecosystem of schools in this country and devastate public education for years.
In New York City – once the epicenter of the pandemic – parents must decide by August 7 whether to go along with a reopening plan that blends in-person instruction with online classes, or opt out for full-time remote learning. Although the city’s infection rate is currently low, the choice is still an agonizing one, given the possibility of a second wave. While other big cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, are starting the school year remotely, New York – the nation’s largest school district with 1.1 million students – could set the standard for schools where the virus is under control.
With just days to go until the new school year starts in many places, parents and educators are realizing that there are no good choices. In-person classes pose safety concerns, given the unrealistic expectation that children will wear masks and stay six feet apart throughout the school day. Paying for the staff and equipment required to keep the virus at bay is also a huge obstacle, especially for cash-starved districts in low-income communities. A hybrid system is a logistical nightmare while remote learning will almost certainly leave the most vulnerable students behind.
It’s hard to imagine what safe in-person schooling would look like now. In Indiana, a student was diagnosed with Covid-19 on the first day of school late last month, and administrators ordered those who had come in close contact with the student to quarantine for 14 days.
Administrators must make difficult decisions without clear scientific evidence on how children might spread the disease. Anti-maskers are rebelling against even the simplest guidelines, while teachers and other staffers say they won’t go to work if schools aren’t safe. About 28% of public school teachers are over age 50 — making them especially vulnerable to the virus. Many say they’d rather retire than risk their health, which would further deplete the teacher corps and make it even harder to maintain social distancing with small class sizes.
When the pandemic struck, districts around the country, especially those in low-income areas, were still recovering from economic losses sustained during the 2008 recession, when nearly 300,000 teachers and other school staff were laid off.
Now administrators must figure out how to manage with even fewer resources as state and local revenues shrink in the face of yet another economic crisis. Teachers have already been laid off in California, Massachusetts and Michigan and the cost of implementing safety measures for an average school district with 3,659 students would amount to $1,778,139, according to an analysis from the Association of School Business Officials International and the School Superintendents Association.
If there’s no in-person schooling, many parents will be forced to give up their paychecks in order to stay home and care for their children — lowering family income during an already financially precarious time. Students who rely on schools to provide free or reduced-price meals could go hungry if in-person classes are scrapped. More than half of American public students were eligible for these meals during the last school year. Although many districts tried to keep feeding needy students this spring, the demand will surely grow as unemployment soars.
This could be a watershed year in the history of American public education. The already growing gap between rich and poor threatens to become an unbridgeable chasm as parents with money pay for ad-hoc alternatives like private tutors, while lower-income families struggle to survive.
In testimony before the Senate this summer, John King, head of the nonprofit Education Trust and a former US education secretary, urged Congress to allocate at least $175 billion for K-12 education to avoid layoffs and pay for safety measures, among other needs. “The coronavirus has only intensified inequities in education, in employment, in health care, and in other areas that already disproportionately impact people of color and low-income families,” King said.
There is no precedent in modern US history for the potential catastrophe of widespread school closures for a year or more. Although most US schools closed during the deadly 1918 flu epidemic, teachers welcomed students back to classrooms again after just a few months, while schools in New York, Chicago and New Haven stayed open. Schools in those cities implemented rigorous public health measures, conducting frequent physical exams and placing nurses in most schools, innovations that later became more common in much of the country. More recent epidemics, such as the H1N1 flu in 2009, also led to school closures — but only for a few weeks.
During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, hundreds of thousands of children were displaced. In New Orleans alone, the storm destroyed 110 of 126 public schools. Some families were relocated to other states, but many children went without regular classes for a year or more. When they finally returned to school, they were an average of two years behind, requiring years of remedial instruction.
The pandemic appears to be intensifying the longstanding threat to the future of universal public education. Proponents of school privatization see closings as an opportunity to make inroads; if public schools don’t open, the argument goes, parents should be able to take their taxpayer money elsewhere. President Donald Trump has threatened to do just that by withdrawing public funds from schools that don’t offer in-person learning and giving the money directly to parents. How that would work is unclear, but for-profit distance learning companies are already ramping up business.
Private and parochial schools — which currently educate around 10% of K-12 students — could also benefit if parents who can afford it are drawn to smaller class sizes and better facilities. They already have the support of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate of school choice and privatization, who has described public schools as a “dead end”
Parents are understandably anxious right now. They endured the shock of the sudden closures in March, and the hope of a return to normality this fall kept many afloat through during the last five months. Earlier in the summer, some districts signaled a return to in-person learning based on low infection rates in their communities — only to backtrack under state guidance as cases rose. Now, more and more districts say they will start remotely, hoping to slowly bring students back by October or November. But that timeline seems overly optimistic. If the virus is still rampant in the fall and winter, schools won’t be any safer. Hearing contradictory announcements from school officials and political leaders is confusing and undermines the credibility of the people who should be most authoritative during this crisis.
Universal schooling is a bulwark of functional democracies; without it, we could become more like developing countries, where education is reserved for families who can pay for it. Before the pandemic struck, Americans generally expressed faith in their public schools. A February 2020 poll from the National School Boards Action Center found that a majority of voters had a favorable view of their local schools and teachers and were committed to investing in schools even if it meant tax increases.
This coming school year will test that reservoir of goodwill in every way possible. What will happen if the virus outruns all attempts to contain it? What will happen to students if brick-and-mortar schools are closed for another year? What will be left to salvage? Parents, students and teachers are all looking for answers. Right now, there are none.