the national interest

Just Reopen the Schools Now

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

It is entirely possible that when we look back at the coronavirus pandemic decades from now, we may see the gravest catastrophe as a generation of schoolchildren whose formative years were irrevocably stunted. Even if the year and counting of public-school rollback has not done as much damage as the death toll itself, it is a social crisis of the same magnitude.

As the pandemic recedes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand why school closings continue to grind on. The answer at this point is simply to open up schools, everywhere, right away.

Every social-distancing measure is the product of a cost-benefit calculation. Some measures net out obviously positive: wearing masks indoors or closing bars and in-person dining. Closing schools last spring was an act of desperation in the face of a spiraling pandemic, very much like eating your seed corn as an alternative to starvation.

Schools have remained shuttered not for any rational calculation but because they’re easy to close and difficult to open. Closing can be done with an order by a governor or public official. Opening requires negotiating a gamut of government guidelines, negotiation with often recalcitrant teachers unions, and persuading parents who have (in some cases) come to see in-person schooling as a serious risk.

An important dynamic is that when authorities first closed schools, they were operating in an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty. It would be an exaggeration to say that schools pose no risk, or even that public-health authorities have a perfect understanding of the risk they pose. It can be said, however, that the weight of evidence strongly suggests in-person schooling, especially of younger students, poses a small health risk. One of the most recent additions to the literature finds “in-person learning in New York City public schools was not associated with increased prevalence or incidence overall of COVID-19 infection compared with the general community.” A New York Times survey of 175 experts drew the same conclusion.

Many schools have been held back by CDC standards saying that they only permit in-person classrooms if students sit no closer than six feet apart. This requirement makes full-time schooling impossible, because schools simply don’t have enough room to teach every student while spacing them so far apart.

But that requirement, chosen hastily last year, turns out to be useless. The most important scientific advance is the recent conclusion that the guideline that students must maintain six feet of distance in schools has no value. David Zweig reported for New York last week that “the CDC’s six-foot guidance and tethering school openings to community transmission does not reflect the science,” as even some of the scientists whose work informed the CDC have noted. A recent USA Today op-ed by four experts firmly concludes, “No science supports mandating 6 feet of distance with children wearing masks.” Another, by a trio of doctors in the Washington Post, likewise concludes, “Keeping students three feet apart instead of requiring them to stay six feet apart won’t make students or teachers and staff less safe.”

Public-health officials can be forgiven for rushing out the six-foot perimeter guidance when they were operating in the fog of confusion. But that crippling and hastily erected barrier has remained in place even after it has been proven useless.

Meanwhile, the other side of the equation is staggering. Alec MacGillis reports on a closed-down high school in New Mexico, just over the border from Texas, where the schools have opened. There is no detectable difference in coronavirus spread between the two communities. All that the New Mexico school gained by all-remote education is an epidemic of depression and lost learning.

Even though public-health experts have increasingly endorsed a return to full-time in-person instruction, opponents of reopening have managed to maintain the appearance of controversy. Mainly, they have done so by emphasizing uncertainty about the precise level of danger, explicitly or implicitly setting a baseline of zero risk as the correct standard for resuming school. (“A major claim among the ‘all schools must open’ crowd is that transmission among children under 10 is low — but we know it’s not zero,” argued Elizabeth Spiers last summer.)

To the extent critics of reopening have engaged with the other side of the equation, they have at times made the case that students haven’t actually suffered academically. Students “are learning more about their families and their cultures, spending more time with each other,” San Francisco school-board president Gabriela López suggested hopefully. “They’re just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure.”

This was not merely an idiosyncratic rationale that popped into one official’s mind. An important element of a certain strand of left-wing opposition to education reform has been to deny the legitimacy of any standardized or objective measure of education. Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, “Answer Sheet,” is a clearinghouse of commentary by teachers-union supporters that has turned its longtime arguments against measuring educational outcomes into a defense of remote instruction.

“There is no such thing as learning loss,” argues one recent Strauss column written by one of her guest authors, which goes on in this vein:

It is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future. Learning is never lost, though it may not always be “found” on pre-written tests of pre-specified knowledge or preexisting measures of pre-coronavirus notions of achievement.

The legacy of the standards movement of the 1990s, and the high-stakes testing it inspired in the early 2000s, is a version of education that is assumed not to exist or matter unless or until it is predicted and measured. The pandemic has illustrated with searing definition how wrong that assumption is. We have all learned, every day, unconditionally …

They learned to take gym class on YouTube, that people you have never met can be your greatest teachers, that the ability to go outside and play during the day makes every day brighter, and that their safety depends on the decisions of others.

This is not the typical argument against school reopening. But it is indicative of the intellectual atmosphere that prevails in segments of the education-policy left, and which has made the union stance on reopening seem comparatively reasonable.

And yes, if you start from the premise that every human experience is learning — and who’s to say that running around unsupervised teaches you any less than “prewritten tests of prespecified knowledge”? — and you also assume that interacting with a teacher entirely through YouTube is no worse than being in a classroom, then there’s no great hurry to return to class. Why should we take any risk at all of spreading the coronavirus when every kind of learning experience is equally valid?

In the real world, however, Zoom class is not generally a wonderland of joy and mystical discovery. Most parents understand that their children benefit from “prespecified knowledge” like reading, writing, math, and so on. Students are not only subjected to the misery of social isolation but to watching the hourglass run out on opportunities to learn they will never have again.

It would be ideal to vaccinate every teacher and equip every classroom with advanced filtration systems. But masks, three feet of space, and cracked windows (winter is over) will do well enough. Remote education has outlived any purpose it might have had. There is nothing left to do but end it.

Just Reopen the Schools Now