No One Wants Schools Shut Down.

That Doesn’t Mean They Should Open.

Ron DeSantis, schools, Florida, COVID-19
Florida Governor DeSantis wants business as usual at any cost. Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / WhoWhatWhy (CC BY-SA 2.0) See complete attribution below.
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Living in the time of COVID-19 is like being on a slow-moving train and seeing the tracks ahead on fire. We cannot get off the train. We cannot make the train stop. We cannot put the fire out. We are stuck, watching the flames get ever closer to us at an excruciatingly measured pace. We know soon they will consume us. But we don’t know what to do about it.

There are a lot of arguments surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and how to stop it while sparing the most lives.

But when it comes to schools, nearly everyone wants them to open. Parents, teachers, school officials, government officials, and especially children. Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. We all want this to be over. We all want our kids to have normal childhoods.

That doesn’t mean we should open the schools. In fact, we cannot open the schools. Not if we care about our families.

My 11-year-old twins looked at me in bright anticipation over the breakfast table a few weeks ago. Their 12th birthday is on August 10, the same day schools were to open for the fall here. They’d be going into the 7th grade with 1,000 of their middle school peers.

“It’s a great birthday present,” one said. “We get to see people again. Real people.”

Only they won’t.

We’re choosing online school, and while it breaks their hearts, they accept this fate.

Florida, the state where I live, has been less accepting. With the president demanding that schools reopen in full for face-to-face instruction, and our governor, Ron DeSantis, following suit, parents, teachers, and county officials are scrambling to put something together for our children that will keep them safe. With all the stopgaps in place to ensure distance between students, time for cleaning classrooms, who will be walking the halls, mask-wearing protocol, and what the school will do when someone gets sick, the amount of time for learning diminishes to the point of near uselessness.

Florida continues to suffer a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, as do several other states opening their schools. More of these cases are going to hospitals, which are already experiencing strain under the renewed pressure. Infectious disease experts are warning against reopening in Texas, Arizona, Florida, and California. The cases, they say, are just too overwhelming.

By opening up the economy again to put people back to work, we find ourselves in the dire situation we had hoped to avoid — surging COVID-19 cases and a subsequent shutdown, elongating this process and rendering our past hard work in masking and quarantining useless.

Of course, parents need to get back to work. The economy needs to reopen. Our society is set up in such a way that school is also childcare, and the ability to stay home with their kids for an extended period of time is a luxury many families don’t have.

This changes the argument from “we must keep schools closed” to “we must provide the infrastructure for parents and students to stay home.” This goes well beyond opening schools and moves into providing an economically viable, healthy space for both children and adults through government social programs.

The federal government had enacted a $600 emergency unemployment benefit for the millions of people who lost their jobs as the US economy shut down. But the Trump administration and Congress just let that benefit lapse.

By opening up the economy again to put people back to work, we find ourselves in the dire situation we had hoped to avoid — surging COVID-19 cases and a subsequent shutdown, elongating this process and rendering our past hard work in masking and quarantining useless.

Why throw away an entire summer of careful avoidance by opening the schools and inviting the virus to spread throughout our community through our children? Yes, they may not exhibit symptoms, and sure, they seem to have a lower chance of dying from the disease, but they can still pass it on to our vulnerable populations.

Most Americans are on the same page about this. According to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs survey, nine out of 10 people don’t believe schools should reopen without restrictions. One-third of us feel that schools shouldn’t open at all, and almost half of the remaining respondents said schools should not reopen unless major adjustments were made to the school day.

Teachers are scared to go back, but they have no choice. Eighty percent of the teachers in my county said they would go back to school because they could not afford to retire, quit, or take a leave of absence, according to a private canvass of 200 teachers in the county system, shared by a teacher in the county. Teachers have to feed their families, too. Here in Florida, the teachers’ union has sued the government, asserting that the state cannot promise a safe and secure environment for them or for their students this fall.

What we should do right now is to take stock of our classrooms and convert them to an online format, where our teachers can work from home and our students can learn from home. We should extend relief benefits for parents who work outside the home, so that they, too, can work remotely when possible, or at least receive help during their furloughs and layoffs.

Public health and economic stability are at odds right now. But if we open everything up to stabilize the economy, we will not only sacrifice our health and safety, we will also plunge that same economy into an even worse recession when the inevitable consequences kick in. Our long-term financial growth is at the mercy of our health, and our health should take priority. It makes sense on a human level. It also makes sense on a financial level.

The only way to keep this country healthy — physically and fiscally — is to keep schools shuttered until we can get a better handle on the coronavirus.


The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Ron DeSantis caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), school (Dan Keck / Flickr), and mask (Presidio of Monterey / Flickr).


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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