Schools Should Open in Full This Fall
School children wait at a bus stop during a phased lockdown due to the coronavirus in Singapore. (Photographer: Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg)

Schools Should Open in Full This Fall

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For all the death and illness the coronavirus has caused, it has done the world one great and surprising favor. It has spared our children.

“Influenza almost always selects the weakest in a society to kill, the very young and the very old,” John M. Barry wrote in “The Great Influenza,” his definitive account of the 1918 pandemic. But while our current pandemic has feasted on the old — some 80% of those killed by Covid-19 were 65 or older — it has mercifully left the young almost entirely untouched. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Covid-19 fatality rate in the U.S. for anyone younger than 19 is so low it is calculated as 0.0%. (The “fatality rate” is the percentage of people who die after contracting a disease.)  Of the more than 88,000 Covid-19 deaths recorded through May 30, 15 were children between the ages of 1 and 14. Fifteen! That compares with 2,571 deaths from all causes for those ages during that same period. When you add in the next age group that the CDC tracks — 15- to 24-year-olds — the Covid-19 death toll rises to 121. That’s 0.14% of those reported Covid-19 deaths. 

There are few things parents fear more than their children coming down with a terrible disease; I can still remember my mother’s terror at the polio epidemic when I was a child. But by any objective measure, this data regarding children and Covid-19 should offer great comfort. 

And yet it doesn’t; fear has overwhelmed the ability of many parents to rationally evaluate the numbers. In New York, playgrounds remain closed. Public swimming pools are not expected to open this summer. Youth sports have been canceled. Kids still aren’t supposed to play with their friends except through Fortnite. Yet there is hardly a peep of complaint; parents seem to think this is the price their children must pay to remain safe. 

Most important of all, schools have been closed. When municipalities nationwide shut down their schools in mid-March, it was entirely defensible. The initial assumption was that the virus would kill children, just as coronaviruses had done in the past. It was also assumed that even if kids were asymptomatic, they would surely spread the disease to their teachers, not to mention their parents and grandparents. 

Three months later, several things are clear. First, the percentage of children infected with the virus is exceedingly low, and the percentage who die from it is microscopically low. Second, the recent protests have made it plain that people view some things as more important than risking the chance of being infected. And third, remote learning is a disaster.

Combine these three factors and the inescapable conclusion is that come September, schools should start up again, more or less the way they always have, though with some accommodations that I’ll get to shortly. The risk is minimal, the importance profound.

Instead, some school systems are planning to continue remote learning into the fall. Others are contemplating having students come in shifts, with certain days designated for remote learning and other days for classroom learning. Massachusetts just issued guidelines for September that limit class size to 10 students and require that no group of 10 can interact with any other class. These ideas are simply unworkable. Anything short of full-on open schools will take a serious toll on schoolchildren, their parents and the struggling economy.

If you have a child at home (I have a fourth grader), you already know that remote learning can’t compare to classroom learning. On a “busy” day, it takes my son at most two hours to get through his work. It’s basically a series of homework assignments. My son’s teacher — who has two small children at home, so is in a pretty impossible situation herself — tries to hold a Google Meet session every day, but it’s rarely more than half an hour. She uses it to let the kids read poems they’ve written or read a book to them. Fridays are largely classwork-free unless the kids are motivated to do a little extra. (Ha!) And of course, there is no recess, or socializing with friends or submitting to the discipline of the classroom.

And my son is among the lucky ones. We have high-speed internet, he is savvy about computers, and he has two parents working from home who can help him when he needs assistance. Last week, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published articles about those who aren’t so lucky. 

“There were students with no computers or internet access,” the Journal reported. “Teachers had no experience with remote learning. And many parents weren’t available to help.” The article continued: 

In many places, lots of students simply didn’t show up online, and administrators had no good way to find out why not. Soon many districts weren’t requiring students to do any work at all, increasing the risk that millions of students would have big gaps in their learning.

The Times reported on a study that attempted to quantify those gaps: through late April, the study concluded, “student progress in math decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes and not at all in classrooms in high-income ZIP codes.” 

For disadvantaged kids, public schools are also where they can get two decent meals a day, where they can find safety if they need it and where they can get encouragement from a teacher who might also serve as a role model. Remote learning ultimately serves to exacerbate the already-wide education gap. In a country that is protesting so fiercely against systemic racism, surely this is untenable.

And what of the parents? Since the pandemic began, more than 40 million Americans have filed jobless claims. Additionally, Forbes reports that 58% of all “knowledge workers” have been working from home because of the virus. Having that many parents at home has eased some of the difficulty of having kids learn remotely. 

But imagine what it’s going to be like in September as companies bring back employees. How, exactly, is this going to work if children are in school two days a week and at home three days? How is the economy going to recover if parents can’t send their children to school every day? Schools serve many functions in our society. One of them, it turns out, is to give children a place to be with other children while their parents are at work. Cities that are drawing up plans to hold school in shifts are ignoring the realities working parents face.  

Whenever I’ve talked to friends about the importance of reopening schools, the pushback is always the same. Kids may be asymptomatic, they reply, but they’ll spread the virus to more vulnerable adults when they go home. 

The jury is still out on that. In early May, Nature published an article that quoted scientists on either side of the question. Children “are not responsible for the majority of transmission and the data support opening schools,” Alasdair Munro, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist, told the magazine. On Monday, Bloomberg News reported on a new Nature study that concluded: “There was no strong evidence that school closures had an effect in any country.” It added that “more research should be done to inform decisions on opening or closing schools.”

Given the lack of a national testing strategy in the U.S., that research is never going to be done on our shores. But other countries, including Germany and Denmark, have reopened their schools, and their experience in the coming weeks and months should inform how U.S. cities handle the next school year.

In Denmark, students have been back in school since April 20, with no increase in Covid-19 cases, according to the Washington Post. The same is true in Norway. In South Korea, there was a sudden spike in cases after schools were reopened — causing the country to shut them down again temporarily. Schools have since reopened, with students wearing masks and submitting to temperature checks. Plastic shields have been installed in front of every student’s desk.

It may well make sense for U.S. students to wear masks come September, and to have their temperature checked as they walk into school each morning. And it might be a good idea to stagger recess so that there aren’t too many kids in the playground at any one time. In a perfect world, children and teachers would be tested for Covid-19 before the beginning of the school year — though pathetically, this appears to be beyond the capability of the federal government. 

There should also be a way to use technology for those teachers — especially older teachers in the high-risk category — who are not yet ready to enter a school building, as well as for parents who remain fearful for their school-age children.

One possibility might be to make it possible for students to watch a live stream of their classroom and submit their work online. I could also envision classrooms with a flat screen television monitor sitting on the teacher’s desk, allowing older teachers to stand in front of their class while remaining at home. Using a two-way platform, teachers could see the entire class and interact with the students. A young assistant could handle blackboard instruction.

I’m not saying these are the only ideas or the best ones. I am saying that school districts should be spending their time figuring out how to get students back into the classroom from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Anything short of that will harm the students and disrupt the society.

“I believe that we cannot fail the dreams and future of our children because of the current difficulties,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun of South Korea said recently, in insisting that schools be opened. If only more U.S. officials agreed. 

This number lags the overall death total because of a delay in reporting death certificates to the National Center for Health Statistics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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