The coronavirus closed schools. Our diseased politics is keeping them closed.

·Senior White House Correspondent
·35 min read

WASHINGTON — The other day, I listened to my daughter’s first lesson of the day, which is conducted over a video feed, like every lesson of her day has been since last March. She sat in our dining room, at a relatively clean table where only a few remnants remained of the previous night’s dinner: a stray strand of spaghetti, a dusting of grated parmesan.

As a former public high school teacher in Brooklyn, I wanted to see if remote learning had improved since last spring, when it was widely considered to be a disaster. Back then it was just as widely believed that, come September, children would be back in the classroom, remote learning all but forgotten by the first frost.

Yet here we are.

The lesson was conducted by a young teacher I have never met. She seemed intelligent and energetic, but most of the lesson was taken up by students explaining that their video feeds did not work, the teacher trying to help them make those feeds work, then both parties discovering to their dismay that the video feeds still did not work.

When the children’s voices did come through, they were tinny and unenthusiastic, as one might expect of children sitting alone in front of screens inside their houses, where many of them have been since Washington, D.C., closed its schools. No amount of teacherly gusto could change that brutally unpleasant reality, especially if that gusto were itself coming across a grainy video feed.

The whole enterprise was plainly and irrevocably doomed, and anyone with a grain of experience in public education would have grasped that fact within five minutes. Evidence is already emerging that online learning is leading to an education gap, one that is almost certainly growing wider by the week. Children aren’t just not learning, they are unlearning the things they had learned before the pandemic.

Jane Hassebroek
Jane Hassebroek of Brooklyn, N.Y., doing her homework online. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

My daughter’s report card came several days after I observed her lesson. It said that she “understands how to use the chat function” on her educational platform. She is in the third grade. The school she attends is regarded as one of the very best in the district.

About 7 million children started school in September as my daughter did, in front of a computer screen. The lucky ones have parents who can take time off from work to help with lessons and maybe even conduct supplementary lessons of their own: Hey, let’s go to the park and learn about photosynthesis and fractals! Some wealthier families have formed micro-schools, or have hired tutors. Though we are not wealthy, we have hired a tutor, because otherwise one of us would have to quit working to sit with our daughter while she learns the chat function and related intricacies of the video feed. Tutors are expensive, which means that we are working to pay for our daughter to attend public school. Over a video feed.

On Monday, Nov. 2, public school teachers in D.C. decided not to attend virtual school. “I hope you had a fun Halloween weekend and that you have a good day today,” my daughter’s teacher wrote at 7:01 that morning. This one-day strike was in opposition to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to bring some students back for in-class instruction. The lack of warning by striking teachers may have had little impact on families who had tired tutors or placed their children in micro-schools. Most families do not have the means to make such outlays. What they were supposed to do on this day when the teachers called in sick was never made clear.

It was tacitly understood that they were supposed to do what they had been doing since March: Get by however they could.

Getting by has been exceptionally difficult for children who lack proper internet access or have home situations that make distance learning impossible. Then there are children who have no home to speak of. And the children who are in abusive households, for whom school was a shelter from the storm. Some 3 million of them disappeared from the educational landscape altogether, in what amounts to a tragedy folded into a catastrophe.

And yet children have remained largely resistant to the virus, with only 138 child deaths recorded across the nation as of mid-November, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association (seven states did not report their age-specific numbers). That constituted .06 percent of all fatalities from the coronavirus up to that point.

Families rally to reopen schools
Families rally to reopen schools in Horsham, Pa. (David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

“We now know very well that children themselves are not at a serious risk,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. A proponent of reopening schools, Christakis argues that “we should follow where the science leads us, even if it takes us somewhere where we don’t want to go.”

It is more difficult to say how many teachers the coronavirus has killed, but as of late September, that number stood at seven in a nation of 3.3 million public school educators. Since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, some 300 people working within schools — that is, teachers, administrators and staff — have died, according to the Associated Press. That’s out of 6.7 million people working in public schools only, which doesn’t account for employees of religious and private schools.

If the danger of returning school does not appear to be very high for either teachers or students, why are schools still closed in much of the country? And if we are committed to listening to the science — as every elected leader in the country has vowed many times over to do — why have so many school districts ignored the growing evidence showing that reopening is not only safe but, as a matter of fact, one of the few safe things you can do in a pandemic?

The coronavirus may have closed schools back in March, but a complex mix of political and cultural forces has kept them closed. For one, decades of opposition to federal control of public education have left Washington largely powerless. To make things worse, Trump devolved virtually all responsibility for handling the pandemic to the states. That left governors to sometimes fight with their education commissioners or with union leaders to slug it out with the mayors they’d endorsed only months before. In the nation’s largest school district, New York City, all the sides fought each other.

The result has been an incoherent and unproductive mess, hardly a credit to the ideals of democracy.

Fed up with this state of affairs, parents in large urban districts are beginning to leave public schools; here in the quasi-suburban precincts of upper northwest Washington, families are now on the hunt for elusive spots at Georgetown Day and Sidwell Friends. Others have decided that they can make homeschooling work, as long as they can conduct it on their own terms. It is easy to dismiss such families as selfish strivers, but they are telling us something, and we would be wise to listen.

We could be witnessing the demise of public education, in real time and right before our eyes. And yet nobody seems to have a way out of the current morass. President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to reopen schools, but there is reason to be skeptical of that promise. Not because the promise is dishonest but because it may simply be too difficult to execute.

Christakis believes that if schools do not open now, they may not open in the fall of 2021, because there almost certainly won’t be an approved vaccine for children by that time. Vaccination rates for adults will be high but not universal, and the vaccine is not a panacea in any case. Educators are currently engaging in what amounts to a national strike based on thin scientific evidence, Christakis argues, and that strike could continue well into 2022.

It’s a tragic situation, agrees Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. But with the virus raging across the land, she says it is simply too dangerous to reopen many schools right now. “We knew what to do to keep children, teachers and staff safe,” Wen says, but failed to do it.

“We should all see this as our COVID year,” Wen recently told me. Many surely already see it that way. The fear is that a COVID year turns into what UNICEF, the United Nations agency tasked with working on matters related to childhood, calls a “lost COVID generation.”

I may have been an English teacher in my time, but a little history lesson is in order. Because we did not get here by accident. A collapse of American public schooling has been in the making for at least half a century. As with so much else, the coronavirus simply made fast what had been somewhat slow. But the walls of the schoolhouse were buckling long before 2020 came along.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schooling was unconstitutional. Southern governors reliant on white votes responded with predictable defiance. In Arkansas, the Eisenhower administration sent federal troops so that nine Black students could attend a Little Rock high school. In parts of Virginia, schools closed outright, in a maneuver that came to be called — and you can hear in its name echoes of today’s anti-lockdown rallies — Massive Resistance.

Subsequent decades would see pitched battles over court-mandated integration in Northern cities, which turned out to have schools as viciously segregated as those in the South, only without the ugly imprimatur of Jim Crow. In Boston, a proposal to bus Black students to white schools led to a violent insurrection by working-class Irish residents.

Marlene McIlvaine with students
Students being bused back to Roxbury, Mass., after attending a school in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. (AP)

Opposition to federal oversight of education continued into the 21st century, plainly in evidence throughout President Obama’s attempt to implement national curriculum standards, known as the Common Core. Critics decried the studiously inoffensive effort as an example of “federal overreach,” in a sign of just how intensely balkanized public education had become since 1954.

“One of the things we can say about the present is that the historical norm is for schools to default to local decision making unless there is a federal carrot or stick to compel them to go in a different direction,” says Matthew Delmont, a professor of African American history at Dartmouth College and the author of a book on school integration.

The coronavirus pandemic is the first fully national crisis in public education since the battle over institutionalized racism a half-century ago. It began on March 11, when Seattle became the first big city to close its schools. The following day, the Republican governor of Ohio announced what would be the first statewide closure in the nation. New York City followed suit three days later.

The Trump administration was ill prepared for a public education crisis. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a conservative activist who has spent the last four years empowering religious, private and charter schools, putting in place policies that would draw students away from public schools. But with the arrival of the coronavirus, and the debate over school reopenings growing hot as his reelection contest neared, a president who had cared little about education for the first three-and-a-half years of his presidency was thrust into a crisis of historic proportions.

“They don't care about the 90 percent of kids who go to public schools,” charges Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful American Federation of Teachers (and my union boss when we were both in New York City).

Trump did not seem to take notice of the situation until it was too late to do much of anything for the 2019–20 academic year. And when he did take notice, it was in his customary manner. “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” Trump tweeted on July 6. This was presumably a preview of the following day’s “National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America’s Schools” at the White House. The all-caps message hinted at what kind of dialogue it was going to be.

Reopening schools safely was already going to be difficult, because the downward trend of the virus had sharply reversed in the preceding weeks, cresting into a second, summer wave. The reason was hardly a mystery, with most states having lifted lockdown orders in May and June. People could go to bars and restaurants again. When they did so, and especially when they did so indoors, infection rates inevitably rose.

“People really thought we would see a waning, or a solution, or a vaccine — or a magical cure — that would get us out of this situation,” says Brandon Guthrie, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington.

Even with that initial hope scuttled and the nation battered by a summer surge, reopening schools may still have been possible, given what was already known about the coronavirus by that time. But epidemiologists cannot open public schools, and neither can politicians.

Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education blames Trump for insisting over the summer that schools should reopen in the fall, but providing them with none of the resources to do so and maligning the very community mitigation measures, like mask wearing, that would have made such a reopening possible.

“Trump,” she says, “created a wedge issue.”

Donald Trump
President Trump at a July 7 event on reopening schools. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In truth, the wedge was already there, and Trump just drove it in deeper. Teachers had been sounding alarms about their professions for years. They were being asked to play too many roles, and with too few resources. The pleas were loud but largely ignored, discounted as the dramatic complaints of people who — and this always comes up in conversation about education — do not know how lucky they are to have summers off.

Maligned as they were, teachers were going to prove essential to reopening schools as pilots to flying airplanes. Yet when Trump convened educators at the White House on July 7, not a single public school teacher was present. The symbolism was difficult to miss. Weingarten, the national union leader, certainly understood it, and when we spoke later that day, she angrily denounced Trump and DeVos as clueless about the public schools they so badly wanted to reopen.

“They don’t help. They don’t do anything,” she said of the administration, wondering why no detailed reopening plans or provisions had been made. “It’s pathetic.” She said that she was open to reopening, but not if teachers were going to be prodded or forced back into the classroom.

“Today was just embarrassing,” Weingarten concluded.

In a statement to Yahoo News, Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, reiterated the administration’s position on school openings. “The science is clear that schools can reopen safely, and I’ve toured many schools across the country that have done just that,” she wrote, citing the harm to students, particularly those with disabilities, of the extended closures.

“Now that state and local leaders have had the time, the CDC guidelines, and the Education Stabilization Fund to prepare for a safe school reopening, there is no excuse for denying students the opportunity to learn in person,” she added.

Unions, however, have argued that that fund’s $13.5 billion elementary and secondary school allotment (itself part of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed in March) is a measly fraction of what would be needed to reopen safely. Trump could have made a peace offering by pushing more aggressively for a second stimulus narrowly tied to schools. That would have at least convinced unions that his efforts were in good faith. Instead, as a senior administration official told me at that time, the president expected states to use money left over from the March stimulus package to move schools towards reopening.

“It’s as if they want us to fail,” mused a public school teacher from Beaverton, Ore. She acknowledged both the need to return to school and the impossibility of doing so, at least in her case, because that would mean teaching in a school that often fell victim to “insufficient soap” and an aging ventilation system.

Similar tales of unmet needs were not exactly new to anyone who had been inside an American public school in the last half-century. The average high school teacher has likely been through at least one round of asbestos abatement and knows well which water fountains in the building to avoid. In 2018, Baltimore had to shutter its schools during a cold spell because the heating systems in many of the system’s buildings didn’t work. The following year, a middle school in Ohio closed because radioactive materials were seeping into the building.

An HVAC worker
A worker inspects a Baltimore public school's heating and cooling unit after a temporary closure due to bitter cold. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A report published earlier this year by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found widespread disrepair, with 54 percent of the nation’s school districts needing to “update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools.”

In an especially relevant finding, the report noted that many schools had heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems that had ceased to function properly: “In about half of the 55 schools GAO visited in six states, officials described HVAC-related problems, such as older systems that leaked and damaged flooring or ceiling tiles.”

Notably, of the 16 school districts those researchers visited, 13 were comprised mostly of minority students, while 14 were classified as either high- or mid-poverty.

In high-poverty districts, the report found, $300 less was spent per student on capital improvements than in low-poverty districts.

Weingarten’s union, the 1.6 million member-strong American Federation of Teachers, called for an investment of $2,300 per student over the summer. That would amount to $116 billion nationwide. After months of mystifying silence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally released its own cost estimate in December, coming in at a significantly lower $442 per student.

In reality, nothing would have to suffice. Republicans in the Senate refused to take up a Democratic proposal called the HEROES Act, which included $100 billion for both secondary and higher education. Nor did they introduce a feasible package of their own.

“It’s outrageous that [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell won’t pass a bill to fund safe reopening of schools,” says Diane Ravitch, a historian of education who teaches at New York University. “It’s expensive to have small classes, additional teachers, PPE, ventilation, sanitizing. Why do the health of students and teachers mean so little to those in power?”

One bastion of opposition to Trump resides in a row house on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. This house is also white, and it is also the locus of political power, but if that power is not quite of the same caliber as that belonging to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the denizens of the row house have managed to frustrate the president’s ambitions all the same. The house is home to the Washington Teachers Union, which has consistently opposed reopening schools in the nation’s capital. It has been successful so far.

Elizabeth Davis, the president of that union, has spent 40 years as an educator in the district. Davis calls herself “a child of the civil rights movement.” As a young girl, she attended the March on Washington during which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

She started work in the district’s public schools at 19, under the city’s last white superintendent. Her first job was at what is today the Jefferson Middle School Academy, the first public school DeVos attempted to visit upon being confirmed as education secretary in early 2017. The visit went poorly, with protestors jeering and trying to block her way.

Davis’s teaching career was confined to wards 7 and 8, the historically African American sections of the city on the east side of the Anacostia River. The neighborhoods where she taught are the ones that were ravaged by crack cocaine in the 1980s and ’90s. They are also the ones that have been left largely untouched by a resurgence of investment in Washington that surged throughout the Obama years and continued even after the advent of Trump.

Elizabeth Davis
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. (Marvin Joseph/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Davis told me about once visiting Murch Elementary School, located in one of the city’s best neighborhoods. A study by the Center for American Progress found that during the 2013–2014 school year, the parent association at Murch raised $303,379. It was one of the biggest hauls in the district — but only a fifth of what the school with the most prolific parent association had managed to bring in that year. Murch Elementary’s recent remodel was notable enough to be featured in an architectural magazine.

“It was like two different school systems,” Davis says.

Nearly all of the “rich” schools in Washington in the Center for American Progress report were WOTP, or “West of the Park,” meaning that they are in the wealthy, white suburban neighborhoods nestled between the Potomac River and Rock Creek Park. On average, they have few children who are poor or nonwhite. That can cause uncomfortable situations, given that many teachers and staffers are people of color. Last year, a parent called security at my children’s school after spotting a “suspicious” Black man. He was on staff.

East of Rock Creek, and on the far bank of the Anacostia, in the schools where Davis taught before becoming union president in 2013, an abandoned school has become an urban curiosity, as opposed to a place where children learn. “Not all parts of the city have equal access to quality schools,” cautioned a report by the nonpartisan D.C. Policy Center published early this year, before the pandemic struck.

Yet it is white parents who are most eager to see schools reopen, according to a CDC survey conducted in July and published in December. White parents are also the least likely to favor mask mandates, the same survey found, suggesting a kind of blithe (and, frankly, inexplicable) unconcern for measures that would keep educators safe.

That may be why the treacly we-are-all-in-this-together talk of last spring never really moved unions. For years they had been assailed by Democratic reformers — including Obama’s first education secretary, Arne Duncan — as well as Republicans who distrusted public-sector unions in general. In the aftermath of the 2007–08 financial crisis, many states cut their education funding. Even after the effects of that calamity receded, the funding remained lower in some places.

Trump also revived century-old attacks on public school teachers as leftists seeking to undermine the American project. Three days before his July reopening event at the White House, he spoke at Mount Rushmore to mark Independence Day. In harsh, ominous rhetoric, he warned schools were part of a “new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.”

Teachers and union members
Teachers and union members at a strike outside Hunter Campus High School in New York City in September. (Paul Frangipane/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Then he would fly back to Washington and urge those same schools to reopen. No wonder teachers refused to do his bidding, even if science was on his side. The culture wasn’t, and that may have mattered more. “Teachers unions are the last line of defense,” an education activist told the Washington Post in early September. They were holding the line not only against Trump but all the forces arrayed behind him: conservatives, conspiracy theorists, corporations. In effect, they were joining the very battle he had described at Mount Rushmore.

It helped the unions that Democrats controlled the cities and counties where those organizations held the most sway. Of the 10 largest school districts in the nation, Democrats are either mayors or county supervisors in each. “Schools tend to be lining up pretty closely with the political bent of the area," says Emily Oster, a Brown University economist who has been writing about the plight of public schools since the pandemic began.

The decisions to open or close, Oster says, are “not deeply enmeshed in science.” That assertion is backed by social science, which has found that districts that voted for Trump have opened their schools, while districts with strong unions (and thus, invariably, Democrats in power) have kept them closed.

As with face masks, what seemed a simple matter of science (masks are good; schools are safe) became a complex matter of culture, one made ever more complex with every new tweet or rant from Trump.

The traditional tie between unions and Democrats gave them enormous leverage as spring turned to summer and the question of reopening loomed. Case counts were rising, no new funding was forthcoming and the loudest proponent of reopening was a president who had deemed schools part of a “left-wing cultural revolution.”

Trump would sometimes complain that schools would reopen on Nov. 4, the day after the presidential election, were that election to be won by Biden. The notion was preposterous, but this gave Democratic mayors all the cover they needed to keep schools closed: They were merely resisting Trump’s eternally questionable coronavirus guidance, nothing more.

“In big cities, where Democrats have generally opted to lean on the pro-lockdown side of the culture clash, system leaders have frequently found it easier to focus on remote delivery and not have to fight with teachers or have to figure out all the accompanying complexities of PPE, staffing, and getting kids back into buildings while social distancing,” says Frederick Hess, who directs the education program at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

“Concerns about in-person instruction are particularly high among Black and Latino parents, as their communities have often been hit hardest by the pandemic. For mayors, school boards and superintendents, this raises concerns that aggressive reopening efforts will be portrayed as racist or, at the least, racially insensitive.”

Hess also believes that while teachers have a “legitimate concern” that they will be safe, the unions that represent them are not negotiating in good faith. “Unions could be working to facilitate smart reopening strategies,” he points out.“Instead, they’re dragging their feet. Why? It’s kind of a no-brainer for them — members are getting full salaries for reduced hours. Many teachers have kids at home, which makes going back to buildings a hassle. There’s just no obvious incentive right now for unions to work to support reopening.”

(Teachers in fact appear to be working longer hours, according to some reports. At the same time, they acknowledge that those longer hours are nevertheless failing to provide “engaging and rigorous” instruction to students, a survey of teachers in Illinois found.)

One could, of course, force schools to reopen, provided one had the political capital to do so. Among those who did is Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, whose own well-known presidential ambitions reside in capturing precisely the same base that elevated Trump in 2016. He has, accordingly, turned Florida in a lab of Trumpian pandemic response. Some 20,000 people have died as a result.

Students return to school
Students returning to school in Miami in October. (Miami Herald via Getty Images)

The governor’s plan to reopen Florida’s schools was praised by Trump at the July 7 event. Encouraged, DeSantis announced that not only would schools have to open for in-person instruction but that they would be prevented from closing again. The state’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran — a Republican functionary with no experience in education —toured a school without wearing a mask. Later, in August, he threatened to terminate teachers who refused to return to the classroom.

Florida’s teachers union sued. In late August, a circuit court judge ruled in its favor, finding that the governor and his state commission “have essentially ignored the requirement of school safety by requiring the statewide opening of brick-and-mortar schools to receive already allocated funding.”

That order was reversed, and schools did open, but with a minimum of good faith, a necessary component of any major action in the midst of a pandemic.

Reporting of coronavirus statistics has been dismal on the part of the DeSantis administration, and has gotten worse as the crisis there has deepened. “There’s no region in the state of Florida that doesn’t have a huge outbreak in schools," says Daniel Uhlfelder, an attorney in the Florida panhandle who has kept his children at home for now. “They’re trying to downplay it. They’re trying to manipulate the numbers.” His kids are learning at home.

If the bullying and deception in Florida were an object lesson in how not to open schools, New York City seemed to provide the opposite example. The city had been the epicenter of the pandemic throughout the spring. By summer, things were markedly better, with the city recording its first day without a single COVID-19 death since the start of the pandemic on March 11.

Days before, Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced that schools would reopen for in-person instruction, but parents could also opt to keep their children learning at home. It immediately became clear that New York City was going to become a test case for reopening schools. If the city’s 1.1 million children and 70,000 students could do it, the conventional thinking went, then just about anyone could.

Imaginations ran wild. This was, after all, the city that erected outdoor classrooms during the 1918 flu pandemic. “As the city has done for restaurants, it could cordon off streets and sidewalks for schools to expand their footprint,” wrote New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante, in describing how the lessons of 1918 could be applied in 2020.

Instead, the city chose to bring students back into buildings, some of which were more than a century old (part of Erasmus High, near the Flatbush middle school where I once taught, has a structure left over from the 18th century). Richard Carranza, the city’s schools chancellor, described to me how he had spent the summer learning about ventilation systems, something he had not expected to be part of his job description when he’d been attracted to New York City from Houston. “It was all kind of esoteric,” he admitted, “until September 21st, when I saw children walking to school” (school opening was delayed twice).

As Carranza and I spoke, my daughter pecked away at her school-issued laptop in the backseat of the (safely parked) family minivan. Another week of transparently unsatisfying remote instruction was concluding in Washington. There would be many more such weeks to come.

It was now October, and schools had been open in New York City for several weeks, without the kind of fatal outbreak some had predicted. To the contrary, the science held. Testing indicated that in the first days of in-class instruction, only 18 students had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We’re doing something that has never been attempted before,” Carranza said of the complex hybrid model educators had devised, which gave both parents and educators the kind of flexibility they said they wanted.

The chancellor knew that his success was immense but also immensely tenuous, predicated on the behavior of New Yorkers who may not have any children in the city’s schools. “My biggest fear is that people will let down their guard and we’ll see a spike that will require us to close schools again for in-person learning,” the chancellor said.

The fear was soon confirmed. New York City closed its schools on Nov. 19, after the city reached the 3 percent positivity rate on diagnostic tests that had been the tripwire laid down by Mayor de Blasio. The positivity rate within schools stayed at about .2 percent, but the decision to close was predicated on infection rates in the community at large.

In front of New York's City Hall
In front of New York's City Hall. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

And yet restaurants and bars remained opened, not only for outdoor dining — which is often conducted in enclosures that look like small sheds — but indoors, where spread of the coronavirus is most likely to occur. Given all the effort de Blasio and Carranza had put into reopening, the contrast between shuttered schools and open restaurants could only feel like an affront to the very notion of civic unity. We were all in this together, sure, but people were enjoying $58 ribeye at Carbone while children languished in the housing projects of East New York.

A relief package for bars, restaurants and other sectors of the economy that rely on social gatherings could have made more palatable the argument that those sectors should shutter to keep schools open.

“I feel strongly that if [de Blasio] was going to close schools then indoor dining, gyms and cafés should’ve been closed before schools were closed,” says Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency physician as well as founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity. “We have copious data that indoor dining and gyms are high-risk environments for coronavirus transmission. Closing schools should be the last option.”

Blackstock, who has two children in New York’s public schools, called the decision to close schools “disappointing and frustrating.” She believes that de Blasio was “trying to appease the teachers union,” with which he is closely aligned.

Science dictates the opposite approach. “If you have a choice between closing the schools and closing the bars, close the bars,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told me after the city’s schools went dark again. “To the best of your capability, try to keep the kids in school,” said Fauci, a native New Yorker and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island was the first to take that approach (other jurisdictions, including New York, are doing the same). With coronavirus infections rising in her state, Raimondo closed bars and gyms while severely limiting how many people can eat at restaurants. Schools stayed open.

Raimondo is a Democrat, and Rhode Island is a bastion of unionized labor, both of which would seem to militate against that effort. But instead of using bluster, the way DeSantis has done in Florida, she used persuasion, citing the lack of infections in the state’s schools, pointing out the shortfalls of remote instruction and allowing high schools to resort to remote learning if necessary.

She also acknowledged that wealthy families, like her own, were able to send kids to private schools, which have tended to stay open. “Every child deserves that same opportunity,” the governor said. “It shouldn’t just be for the parents who choose to and are able to pay tuition.”

In just a little more than a month, all these will be Biden’s problems. What he will do about them is a bit unclear. He has said he will be the nation’s “most pro-union president.” At the same time, he believes schools can reopen safely, telling Lester Holt of NBC News that “we should be focusing on opening schools as rapidly as we can” by providing teachers and school staff with a coronavirus vaccine, the first batches of which have just become available.

When I asked Biden transition staffers about reopening schools, they sent me a link to a document that highlighted the following passage: “The decision about when to reopen safely should be made by state, tribal, and local officials, based on science and in consultation with communities and tribal governments. It should be made with the safety of students and educators in mind.”

That could mean that as long as unions continue to claim that safety is at stake (as Christakis of Seattle suspects they will, perhaps for many months to come) Biden would say he is keeping schools closed only as a result of the “consultation” with relevant parties that he had promised. He would simply be following the deliberative process he outlined, nothing more.

The transition staffers also pointed to an interview Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris conducted with CNN’s Jake Tapper. In the segment the staffers highlighted, Tapper asks Harris — who like Biden has close ties to teachers unions — if she would defer to health experts or to teachers unions when it comes to opening elementary schools, where the risk of contracting the virus is effectively nonexistent.

In response, Harris called Tapper’s question a “false choice,” when it is plainly nothing of the sort, since the scientists and unions are in direct opposition on the question of reopening. Harris went on to say that scientists “must help inform the decisions, but our educators are our educators. They are on the front line. They are most knowledgeable about the educational needs of our children.”

Several days later, as Chicago was preparing to send some children back to school, the teachers union there tweeted that the “push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” After a firestorm of criticism, the message was deleted. Subsequent messages, however, made clear that the underlying belief remained.

It will be difficult for Biden and Harris to square such heated rhetoric with the claims made by medical professionals, if they in fact do intend to reconcile the two sides. The easier option, and the one they appear to be leaning toward, is to give the unions what they want.

The idea of vaccinating teachers alongside medical professionals and elderly or vulnerable populations is gaining traction, and could be a way out of the quagmire, but that decision is up to the states. In a call with governors earlier this week, the president-elect laid out his imperative. “I know it's going to be controversial for some of you — but I’m going to ask that we’re going to be able to open schools at the end of a hundred days,” he said.

Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden announces new members of his Cabinet on Nov. 24. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

The timeline, though, is excessively generous. A hundred days from the transition, many school districts will be nearing spring break. After that, how serious of a push will there be to reopen in May and June? If Biden were truly committed to reopening schools, he would have already selected an education secretary and instructed that nominee to begin working on a much more aggressive plan.

The education transition team is headed by Linda Darling-Hammond, a former Stanford professor who is close to the teachers unions. Hess, the conservative educator commentator, has observed that there are so many union officials on the transition team that it looks like the roster of a softball game between the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

A former NEA chief executive, Lily Eskelsen García, is seen as a likely choice to run the Department of Education. She has since deleted one of her two Twitter accounts (it is not clear why), but an archived version shows her sharing messages skeptical of reopening schools.

“There should be a recommendation in alignment with what the science is telling us,” says Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a former principal from the Bronx who was elected to the House of Representatives earlier this year. Like many other educators, he believes that schools should be opened “for our youngest children” first, as they are the least likely to spread the coronavirus and the most likely to have trouble with remote learning. To open safely, Bowman says, public schools need “more resources and more teachers.”

Those resources would have to come from a congressional relief package, one that would have to be ratified on a Capitol Hill where most Republicans still refuse to acknowledge that Biden won last month’s presidential election. And the makeup of both chambers will remain the same, meaning that McConnell will have little incentive to deal with the new administration.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are now arguing about a coronavirus relief package once again. This one would total $908 billion and contain $82 billion for education. Prospects for the bill’s passage are good but far from certain.

That remote learning doesn’t work seems to be one of the few points on which right and left agree. “I have two grandchildren in school now,” says NYU historian Ravitch, who usually sides with unions and progressive educators on policy matters. “They are very bored by remote instruction and long to be back in school with friends and teachers.”

The same is true for my daughter. Each day, she watches her 5-year-old brother go off to a private kindergarten, where we placed him because it was clear that he would not be able to sit through a day of remote learning. The school is run by a group of exceptionally capable Latino women out of an unadorned cluster of rooms inside a Baptist church. His teachers, whom he adores, have taught my son Spanish, English and mathematics, all in a space of four months.

Back in October, the school closed for two days because a family member of one of the students tested positive for the coronavirus. It opened again the following week and hasn’t closed since.


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