Around the globe, school is back in session. Across Europe, kids returned to class in Belgium on May 18, Finland on May 14, France on May 11, Norway on April 27, Germany on April 20, and Denmark on April 15. But in the United States, parents in many communities are being told that their schools might not even re-open by September.
What’s going on? After all, the fatality rate in the U.S. lies below most western European nations. Some of our teachers are nervous, but so are theirs. Some of our parents are reluctant to send their children back to school, but so are theirs. What’s different?
While our counterparts across the Atlantic are rolling up their sleeves and making it work, American education elites are busy playing a game of chicken with state and federal lawmakers.
Last week, Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, told U.S. News and World Report that many administrators are “saying ‘it’s early, but I have to tell you, I don’t see how we could possibly open without additional funds.’” The superintendents of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco coauthored a letter to California lawmakers threatening that any “cuts will mean” keeping schools closed even after “clearance from public health officials is given.”
The impulse to seek more spending is understandable. After all, teachers will need personal protective equipment. Schools that stagger their schedules will need to purchase and maintain more laptops and tablets to facilitate remote learning. Parents will certainly demand more rigorous school sanitization. All of this will take money. We support measured amounts of additional aid.
But understand that U.S. public schools already collect $700 billion a year in K-12 education funds. That’s $14,000 per pupil — thousands more than the above-named nations that have already re-opened schools. The CARES Act included $17 billion for K-12.
And yet, this week, the American Federation of Teachers demanded an additional $116.5 billion in federal funding, warning that anything less means, “School buildings will stay shuttered and America’s families will endure another academic year of at-home learning — with potentially disastrous consequences for student achievement and well-being.”
While such exhortations are intended to claim the moral high ground of student safety, the evidence suggests that this stance may well be putting kids at greater risk.
After all, as the CDC has reported, just 14 of the first 69,000 COVID deaths were children under the age of 14. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, but that realization means we must also weigh the risks of keeping 50 million children home for months on end. Even setting aside lost learning and the emotional devastation of school closures, locales around the country are reporting huge increases in calls to crisis hotlines and substantial decreases in child abuse reports (not because abuse is actually declining, but because kids aren’t in contact with adults who typically report abuse — teachers, doctors, and police).
Education advocates have pointed to Israel, which has seen new outbreaks following school re-openings, as an illustration of the risks of re-opening. At the same time, other countries have re-opened and seen no spike in cases around schools. Until there’s a vaccine, every decision relating to COVID will require balancing risks. But the risks of re-opening must be balanced against those of staying closed.
After all, remote instruction has proven a massive disappointment. Even as the school year was winding down, just a third of school districts nationwide expected students to participate in real-time online interaction with teachers. The Center for Reinventing Public Education reported that, months after schools closed, one-third of districts still weren’t expecting schools to provide instruction. Education Week has found that teachers report more than a fifth of students went absent without a trace when schools closed.
Some districts took the odd tack of self-righteously justifying their failure to teach. Consider Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools, which pointed to its “commitment to ensuring equity” in prohibiting teachers from covering any new material (since it couldn’t ensure that every student had adequate internet bandwidth).
Re-opening America’s schools is a messy, massive challenge. But if France is already doing it for $9,500 per pupil, U.S. school leaders should be able to do better with months to plan and thousands more per pupil at their disposal. Re-opening with social distancing will likely require a host of accommodations, from modified schedules to altered routines. It certainly means demonstrating dramatic improvement in remote learning (even if we need to not to kid ourselves about how much that will help).
Where education leaders are up to the challenge, they should be lauded and given all the support they need. After all, this can’t be just the work of schools — it will require communities to step up.
Where education leaders aren’t up to it, lawmakers should respond on behalf of students and families in much the same way that President Lincoln once addressed a dithering General George McClellan: “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.”
Above all, in those places where school leaders can’t or won’t find a way to teach kids and keep them safe, lawmakers should give parents the chance to do better by giving them the resources set aside to educate the nation’s youth.
This piece first appeared at RealClearPolicy
Frederick M. Hess is director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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