February 11, 2021

Reopening Schools

“Chicago Teachers Union members have approved a reopening agreement with the school district that opens the door for in-person learning for elementary school students for the first time since the pandemic shuttered school buildings last March… Some 68% of voting teachers and staff ratified the agreement, the union announced early Wednesday morning.” WBEZ

“Joe Biden pledged Tuesday to bring the coronavirus pandemic under enough control to open most of the nation’s schools during his first 100 days as president.” AP News

Many on both sides call for schools to reopen:

The science is clear enough… Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, ‘there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.’ The authors cite a study of 11 school districts in North Carolina showing that ‘within-school transmissions were very rare’ and ‘there were no cases of student-to-staff transmission.’ Numerous credible researchers around the world have found the same thing…

“A McKinsey estimate from last June concluded that students may have lost three months to a year of learning, depending on the exact circumstances. This gap could affect the rest of their education and perhaps even their future earnings. Then, there are the social costs for children, among them higher rates of depression and anxiety. School closures have pulled women out of the labor force to bear the brunt of all the juggling that has to go on at home when the kids aren’t in school… Biden’s goal should be to exert every ounce of influence that he has to get kids back in the classroom — for their own good and that of the country’s parents.”
Rich Lowry, Politico

“Of course, the union must be vigilant about ensuring the safety of teachers. But it is hard to take seriously its claim of wanting kids back in school when it seems to continually set up roadblocks. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that schools can safely reopen, even without all teachers being vaccinated. The experience of schools that have opened shows protocols such as mask mandates, social distancing, testing and small cohorts of students — all things D.C. schools are doing — work. School-based covid cases have been rare.”
Editorial Board, Washington Post

“The Chicago district installed air purifiers in classrooms, conducted ventilation tests, increased rapid testing and held more than 60 meetings with union leaders, but so far the union has been able to keep public schools from reopening. The union says its members won’t go back to work so long as the city’s positive test rate is above 3 percent. Where did it get that threshold as the basis for its negotiating stance? It pulled it out of thin air…

“Study after study has shown that schools can be safe. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just attested to this fact. The evidence seems clear. Private and some public schools are already operating safely all around the country, with little evidence that attendance is spreading the virus… The unions are not reflecting reality.”
David Brooks, New York Times

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“The lack of trust is not just about the character of the powerful actors involved; it also has to do with what parents and teachers understand about the conditions of the school buildings, and whether schools are likely to carry out health and safety protocols successfully. Schools can be safe ‘as long as the school is following a mitigation plan,’ as one doctor from the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital put it. But parents’ and teachers’ trepidation about returning to school has everything to do with whether schools will consistently adhere to one…

“This past summer, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released its first report since 1996 on the physical condition of the nation’s public schools. It found that a majority cannot make needed major building repairs because of the expense. Among the most common problems encountered were those involving expensive H.V.A.C. systems, which deal with heating, cooling and ventilation. The study found that forty-one per cent of schools needed to repair or replace their antiquated heating and ventilation systems. It is not anti-science to question whether these same school districts are now, somehow, able to fix longstanding ventilation and cleaning issues.”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, New Yorker

“One hitch here is resources. Protective equipment, improving ventilation, and more testing can cost money — and as they deal with a recession, local and state governments may not have the budget for all of that. That’s where President Joe Biden and Congress, with the federal government’s deep pockets, can help… Still, [John Brooks at the CDC] noted there are several things schools could do on the cheap…

“Cloth masks aren’t very expensive. Neither is leaving doors open or cracking a window to improve ventilation. Forgoing some extracurricular activities, especially those indoors, could save money and avoid superspreading events. All of this requires prioritizing reopening schools. America has not done that so far, as it’s reopened bars and indoor dining before in-person teaching — fueling outbreaks in actually risky spaces that then forced more caution around reopening schools because community spread was so out of control… To reopen schools, then, officials will need to adopt the precautions that have long been recommended for Covid-19.”
German Lopez, Vox

“Classrooms are often small and overcrowded, many buildings are old with suboptimal ventilation and it's nearly impossible to teach children, while also social distancing. Many teachers have medical conditions that increase their Covid risk and 31% are older than 50 years of age. Not surprisingly, many are reluctant to return to the classroom until they feel their personal risk, and the risk to their families, is acceptable…

“Although the CDC has recommended including people who work in the educational sector in the second round of vaccinations (phase 1b), not all states have done this. According to EducationWeek, as of Feb 4, 24 states and the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have made teachers eligible to receive the vaccine. What's more, even in states where teachers can now receive the vaccine, as is the case with most other Americans, finding a vaccination appointment can be very difficult…

“If our high priority is to open schools this academic year, then let's mobilize to vaccinate all of our teachers.”
Jonathan Reiner, CNN

“Re-opening schools won't immediately fix the problems caused by a year out of them. In Chicago, where the city's liberal mayor is at war with the city's teachers' union, data released by district about who will actually come back when schools open suggests it's the White kids who will return, while the Black and Brown kids stay home.”
Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

From the Right

“President Biden made an early pandemic show by promising that a majority of American schools would reopen in his first 100 days in office. But on Tuesday we learned that this depends on the meaning of the word ‘reopen.’ ‘His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools, so more than 50 percent, open by day 100 of his presidency and that means some teaching in classrooms,’ White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. ‘So at least one day a week.’ One day out of five? We doubt that’s how working parents define open…

“A University of Pennsylvania study estimates that each month of school closures costs students between $12,000 and $15,000 in future earnings. The earnings hit will be greatest for minority and poor children in cities… Congress last year appropriated $68 billion in Covid relief for K-12 schools, but they have spent only $4 billion…

“Now Democrats in Congress plan to send public schools another $130 billion—whether they open or not. If Mr. Biden really wants to lead, he’d use his bully pulpit to say school districts that don’t reopen classrooms won’t get the money. Instead we get Ms. Psaki defining classroom instruction down.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

“During the recent budget debate, Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced an amendment to withhold aid for schools that don’t reopen after teachers have been vaccinated. Every single Democrat voted against it. Why? Because in 2020, teachers unions gave $43.7 million in political contributions, 98 percent of which went to Democrats. The No. 1 recipient of teachers union cash? Joe Biden…

“Biden says he wants kids to return to school. But instead of calling out his teachers union allies, he is giving them a pretext for holding out by insisting that Congress must pass his $1.9 trillion covid relief package first in order for schools to reopen safely. This is a canard. Congress just approved $54 billion in December for K-12 schools, on top of the $13.5 billion set aside for schools in the Cares Act last spring…

The refusal of unions to teach is appalling. Imagine if the millions of grocery clerks who showed up for work over the past year had said they would not conduct in-person sales until they had been vaccinated? America would have starved. They came to work because their jobs were essential. But apparently teachers unions don’t believe teachers are essential. Millions of American parents say otherwise. Now Biden has to choose. The science says it is safe to reopen schools, but his union allies say no. Will he follow the science or follow the unions?”
Marc A. Thiessen, Washington Post

“From a public-health perspective, reopening schools is not a difficult call. The consensus is that, with proper safeguards, it’s largely safe to do so. The data suggests that the economics of reopening are favorable as well… variation among counties [in the Mountain West and parts of the South] reveals a substantial overlap between counties that have the highest levels of in-person instruction and those that have lowest unemployment rate. A similar pattern holds at the state level…

“None of this means — much less proves — that opening schools will lead to lower unemployment. It does, however, lend support to the contention that the effectiveness of the stimulus will be blunted if schools remain mostly closed. Even with wildly divergent initial economic conditions, there aren’t very many employment success stories in counties with little in-person instruction…

“Publicly crossing the teacher’s unions would be a politically difficult move for a new Democratic president. Failing to get schools open as soon as possible, however, could prove to be politically disastrous for Biden — and devastating for the U.S. economy.”
Karl W. Smith, Bloomberg

A libertarian's take

“Parents are learning just how much power public-sector unions have over our schools. The nation is seeing that many teacher unions aren’t wielding their power to help kids. Teacher unions are different from unions in the private sector. When they negotiate, they often sit across from bosses they helped elect through millions of dollars in campaign contributions, with parents and kids excluded from the process…

“When teacher unions demand that more money be spent on particular projects or benefits, they know the government can always try to get more from taxpayers. If a private-sector union succeeds in pushing an unaffordable contract, the business will falter, and union jobs will be threatened. And when teacher unions walk out – as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was poised to do before reaching a delayed agreement with the school district on Feb. 7 – they walk out on kids. Parents can’t just choose a different provider as easily as they could if workers were striking at their preferred grocery store. The kids are left behind: nowhere to learn, no way to hold the grown-ups accountable.”
Mailee Smith, The Hill

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