Answer Sheet: The Deeply Distorted Debate About Reopening Schools
For nearly a year, the Trump administration was accused of ignoring science by trying to bully schools into reopening during the coronavirus pandemic without requiring that proper safety steps being taken. Now the Biden administration, less than a month in office, is being accused of ignoring science — largely for doing the opposite.
A popular construct of the criticism of the Biden administration goes like this: Frustrated parents everywhere want their kids back in schools right now, but fearful (and sometimes lazy) teachers don’t want to go. Their unions are nothing but obstructionist. Researchers say there is little evidence that schools contribute to increased community transmission of the coronavirus. President Biden, a friend of labor, is siding with the unions by supporting the idea of instituting safety precautions before reopening.
There is a lot that is distorted with that thinking, which suggests that critics believe that there is a firm consensus on which safety measures are necessary and that all schools will implement or are implementing them.
Actually, there is a continued lack of governmental clarity over exactly what proper safety measures are necessary — and plenty of evidence that many school districts already open are not coming close to implementing some of the key measures. Researchers reporting on transmission in schools qualify their results by saying safety measures matter, a point that sometimes gets left out of the reopening debate or gets added as an aside.
Encapsulating some of the pointed discussion was a conversation on Sunday between Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s “State of the Union” and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky. Tapper asked Walensky why more schools weren’t open when she and infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci and other experts have been saying for months that schools should open as long as there are certain safety measures in place.
“There are a lot of people out there watching who think, like, ‘I thought the science said we should open the schools as long as we are taking the safety steps,’ ” Tapper said. “We’re taking the safety steps, and we’re not opening the schools.”
In fact, the “science” of reopening schools is evolving — even as more dangerous variants of the coronavirus are starting to spread and presenting new challenges to a country that has done one of the worst-recorded jobs in the world at containing the pandemic. And if a school district is trying to figure out exactly what protocols must be taken, the available guidance is still not crystal clear.
On Friday, the CDC released reopening guidance for school districts that rested on five key pillars: masking, social distancing, hand-washing, cleaning and contact-tracing when exposures occur, combined with quarantining those exposed.
However, those pillars do not include what leading scientists say are other vital measures: well-functioning air ventilation systems and robust testing and screening programs at every school to find people who have the coronavirus but show no symptoms.
Walensky herself, while talking to Tapper, said diagnostic testing was a key safety measure. But it isn’t in the administration’s guidance, and many schools aren’t doing it.
Apoorva Mandavilli, a New York Times health reporter covering the coronavirus, noted in a tweet: “We can only know what in-school transmission is if schools do regular testing — not just diagnostic testing of symptomatic people, but screening for asymptomatic ones, or surveillance of the school population as a whole.”
Geoffrey Canada, educator and founder of the famed Harlem Children’s Zone, told host Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC on Tuesday that good ventilation in schools is essential. But he also said it is not possible to replace every failing HVAC systems as fast as necessary.
Indeed, a Government Accountability Office report published in June said 4 in 10 school districts are estimated to need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their school buildings, affecting 36,000 school buildings nationwide.
But, Canada said, we still need to have “a real conversation” about how to address the problem. “We can’t retrofit those schools,” he said. “That will take forever. How do we deal with that situation? Let’s get some physicists together. Let’s give teachers and schools ideas about how we solve that problem.”
Canada also said that social distancing of six feet is not possible in every classroom and that there needs to be a discussion about how to handle that in areas with low coronavirus transmission. “Let’s really get some science,” he said. “Let’s talk about that. Our teachers need to believe that we are being transparent and not using them as sacrificial lambs.”
Canada made another point that is rarely discussed when critics blame teachers’ unions for keeping schools closed: They are not monolithic. Local and state affiliates don’t take orders on reopening from the two main national unions: the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And those two are hardly in lockstep, either.
The AFT put out a detailed reopening plan last summer that looks pretty much like what scientists have been saying. Canada said he has not talked to the NEA but has started speaking with AFT President Randi Weingarten, who told him that “she wants these schools open, and I believe it is serious.”
“I think we should solve the problems that teachers are confronting to get these schools open,” he said. “And in some cases where the union is just being unreasonable about this, I think that’s a political problem they are going to have to deal with. But I think we can open up the vast majority of schools if we just do some basic preventive steps.”
Biden said this recently about the difficulty in reopening schools: “If you are anti-union, you can say it is all because of teachers. If you want to make a case, though, [that] it is complicated, you say, what do you have to do to make it safe to get kids in schools?”
Consider these other factors that complicate the reopening of schools:
- Many parents aren’t ready to send their kids back, especially in communities of color that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and that have legitimate trust issues with government authorities to do the right thing to keep everybody safe inside schools. For example, when Chicago schools officials and the powerful Chicago Teachers Union agreed on a plan last week to reopen schools after nearly a year, most students weren’t planning to return right away. A district survey of parents in December found that only 31 percent of Latino families, 33 percent of Asian families and 33.9 percent of Black families said they would send their children back. For White families, it was 67.5 percent. We don’t hear a lot about how to directly address the concerns of these reluctant parents in school reopening debates.
- Teachers want to be vaccinated, but in many places they are not being prioritized for the shots. It is true that the CDC says vaccination is important but not a prerequisite to reopening. And Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner isn’t alone in saying that vaccinating teachers isn’t enough to reopen schools in areas with high community transmission (because even people who are vaccinated are believed to be able to transmit the virus, as can those who are infected but have no symptoms). But refusing to prioritize teachers suggests a deliberate disregard for them, heightening their concerns.
- Many schools are not — repeat, not — taking the appropriate safety steps to allow safe reopenings. Some have little or no testing protocols and poor ventilation. Teachers report having to buy their own masks — sometimes for students, too — as well as insufficient social distancing and cleaning procedures. Some classrooms have desks inches apart. People in some schools refuse to wear masks; Walensky told Tapper there is research showing that around 60 percent of students are reliably masking but that more than 90 percent masking is required for a safe environment.
- School district leaders across the country have been warning since early last summer that they need billions of dollars to fund the safety measures necessary, but they haven’t received most of it. Congress went month after month refusing to provide the relief that schools and local and state governments say they need (or even anything close). Biden has included in his coronavirus relief legislative package $130 billion for K-12 schools to implement safety measures. But concerns of superintendents have gotten short shrift.
There is another truth that should not be ignored: Many schools were not healthy environments for human beings before the pandemic. In too many places, this is the ordinary: crumbling buildings, unhealthy air quality, bugs and rodents, mold, broken or nonexistent air conditioning and heaters, nonfunctioning toilets, etc. If you don’t think that takes a daily toll on everybody inside a school, guess again.
Yet there is no serious discussion about addressing these issues. The debate is increasingly dominated by a refrain from outraged and exasperated editorial writers and columnists and news show hosts who say we must open schools and the monolithic teachers’ unions have to stop fighting it.
Parents reluctant to send their kids back to school and teachers desperate to get back to their jobs know full well that millions of young people have been harmed in incalculable ways by being out of school for nearly a year. They are outraged and exasperated by that, too.
But they also know that the narrative many critics are spinning about who is or is not ignoring science is itself ignoring some very real obstacles to immediate reopening of many schools.
(Correction: An earlier version said the NEA had not released a plan for reopening schools. The NEA did last summer.)
February 19, 2021