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Editorial: The Case for Reopening Schools

What is the objective of education?

This is the first question that the teachers unions, governors, legislators, and President Donald Trump should consider as they approach the issue of reopening schools.

In the most basic sense, education consists of bestowing three things upon the young: knowledge, the ability to think critically, and social skills. The student is at the core of education, and his development is the entire point of offering public schooling. Otherwise, property taxes and Department-of-Education funds would be better allocated to different uses.

To say otherwise is akin to suggesting that the goal of industrial production is not what is being produced, but the workers manning the machinery. Or that the goal of healthcare is not the patients being served, but the nurses and doctors doing the work. In reality, every effort has an end goal (e.g., producing hammers, healing the sick, or cultivating young minds). The means are not the end.

In this case, the students are the end and teachers are the essential workers who help accomplish this end. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, some have forgotten the true nature of this relationship. A recent statement from the Durham, North Carolina Association of Educators (DAE), a teachers union, reads:

Governor [Roy] Cooper needs to shut down the state to flatten the curve – as Rhode Island and Hawaii have demonstrated. Until that is done, remote learning should remain the default. … [Durham Public Schools] DPS should work with [Durham Association of Educators] DAE to identify school staff that feels safe in providing in-person support to the most vulnerable students. This should mark the extent to which any DPS employees provide in-person services as part of their work.

Judging from DAE’s statement, especially the final sentence, do they intend to advance student education? The state of North Carolina, with a population of 10.4 million, currently has 1,168 hospitalizations from COVID-19. Deaths clock in at 1,778 (compared to an average of 1,430 from the seasonal flu) and the death rate (169.5 per million residents) is lower than that of 31 states. For reference, the DAE's inspiration -- Rhode Island -- has 945.9 deaths per million.

Thus, DAE's demand that Cooper "shut down" North Carolina cannot reasonably be met. It is an extortive attempt at reinstating remote education with no end in sight -- an unacceptable proposition.

On the flip side, teachers are essential to the education of students and their safety must be considered.

Covid-19 Closed Schools. When Should They Reopen? - Education Next
Macy Intermediate School -- Monterey Park, CA

It is up to the teachers and school districts to reconcile these conflicts, but the needs of students should be paramount. It is imperative that they return to the classroom this fall for four reasons: Remote learning was a failure, elevated medical risk is close to nonexistent for students and most teachers, families would be strained otherwise, and policies should be crafted based on the rule, not the exception.

First and foremost, another round of remote learning would be a grave disservice to students. A June 5th headline from the Wall Street Journal is blunt but accurate: "The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work."

Many students did not bother to check into virtual class. This was a major problem in Los Angeles, where 15,000 high-school students had not checked into a single class as of March 30th. This improved to 3,000 students by April 29th, but another horrifying statistic remains: 40,000 students (i.e., one-third of those attending public high-schools in Los Angeles) did not check in on a daily basis. The numbers would be even more horrendous if elementary and middle schools were included. One teacher in Fresno, which did not track attendance, reported that only 10% of his students were completing their assignments.

Attempts to mitigate truancy were nonexistent. For example, the Sacramento City Unified Schools went no further than suggesting that consequences for nonparticipation in remote learning "could potentially include home visits if students and families don't respond." Style guides recommend against hedging statements with words such as "could" and "potentially," but Sacramento Unified provides an excellent example of obfuscation. Consequences for skipping school were nonexistent but the school district did not want to come out and say it.

Even for the students who did participate in online school, performance suffered immensely. Business Insider reports, "US students in grades 3-8 are anticipated to make only an estimated 70% of the reading gains and 50% of math gains compared with what they would typically learn in a school year, according to NWEA estimates based on a national sample of 5 million students." Those without reliable access to Internet, technology, and parental support will bear the brunt of this academic stagnation.

Moreover, the shutdown of schools led to health consequences comparable to those of COVID-19. The American Academy of Pediatrics observes:

Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.

Complete data on youth suicides and child abuse will take years to compile. In the meantime, there are anecdotes that policymakers should consider. In Dallas, a six-year-old was beaten and forced to live in a rat-infested shed. His only baths consisted of being sprayed with a hose and his toilet was a succession of garbage bags. Would have these primitive living conditions made it past the watchful eye and nose of a schoolteacher? The child suggests otherwise, noting that his personal hell commenced when he "got out of school for this corona thing."

Second, children are not at elevated medical risk because of the coronavirus. The word "elevated" is key, as every daily activity -- e.g., walking down the street, riding a bicycle, or eating a sandwich prepared by a restaurant employee -- is associated with risk. The question is how we want to mitigate these risks and the costs we should incur in doing so.

For the week ending on July 11th, the CDC reports that there were 2,531 COVID-19 deaths. There was not a single death among kids under fifteen, and there were just eight deaths for people aged 18 to 24. For measure, 687 people aged between zero and 24 died of all causes in the week ending July 11th. Over the course of the pandemic, just 17 kids under five have died from COVID-19, and the New York Times adds, "[W]hile a multi-system inflammatory syndrome, called MIS-C, affects some children infected with the coronavirus, it is rare and most recover from it."

There is still a debate over whether kids can catch the disease, let alone transmit it. The Times, reporting on an Icelandic study, notes, "[A] team of researchers tested 6 percent of the country’s population for the coronavirus. Out of more than 848 children who responded to an invitation to participate in one part of the study, the team found no coronavirus infections in kids under 10 years old, even with elementary schools and day cares open at the time."

Iceland is not a perfect case study, but their results are affirmed by anecdotes from around the world. "Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and most other countries that have reopened classrooms haven't had outbreaks in schools or day-care centers," reports the Wall Street Journal. Strangely, left-wingers who praise Danish social-welfare schemes have yet to adopt Copenhagen's perspective on education. The Journal continues, "the absence of any notable clusters of infection in reopened elementary schools so far suggested that children aren't significant spreaders of the new coronavirus in society."

Doctors have investigated young people's depressed risk profile. Two factors appear to be at play: Children have fewer ACE-2 receptors, which provide a docking station for the virus, and the receptors that they do have are concentrated in the upper respiratory system, preventing the lower-respiratory ailments that lead to COVID-19 symptoms.

Whether high schools can open without transmission is still an open question. Israel, which was lampooned for shutting down 51 middle and high schools shortly after reopening them, may serve as a guide. They saw a total of 261 infections among students and faculty combined, and 150 of those infections occurred at a single school. Israel's dilemma was minimal, even if the media coverage of it was not.

Teachers' health must also be considered. However, the keep-everyone-home-at-all-costs dogma is not supported by evidence. The CDC notes, "For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death." To put this statistic in perspective, there have been roughly 9,000 deaths as a result of the coronavirus alone (.06 times 149,074). Comparing this statistic to the flu would be disingenuous as a lot of flu deaths are probably accompanied by comorbidities. However, it calls into question the real risk that teachers in good health face.

Teachers' risk becomes even more infinitesimal once we account for age. The average age for a teacher is 42.4 years, and the median is 41 years. Most (54%) are aged between 30 and 49, and just 18.8% are over 55. CDC data show that just 20 people aged 35 to 44 died of COVID-19 in the week ending July 11th, compared to 387 deaths overall for the same age group.

Basically, 95% of the average teacher's risk comes from a factor that is not COVID-19. The percentage of risk that is COVID 19-related shrinks even further to about 0.31% for a teacher without preexisting conditions ((.06 x 20) divided by 387). Even for a teacher aged 55 to 64 without preexisting conditions, roughly 0.4% of his risk is COVID 19-related ((.06 x 132) divided by 2,005).

These calculations assume that the 6% statistic remains constant across all age groups, but COVID-19 risk is still extremely low for those under 65 -- even if we ignore the comorbidity aspect.

The best solution for keeping teachers safe is allowing the elderly or those with preexisting conditions to stay home. Perhaps students who also prefer to stay home could engage in remote learning with at-risk teachers, creating a win-win situation. And, as I explain later in this article, the risk of transmission does not need to be a given. Common-sense safety protocols are commensurate with good education.

Third, another round of remote learning would be a disaster for parents whose job cannot be completed from home. Economists from the University of Chicago found that only 37% of American jobs can plausibly be done remotely. Assuming that this statistic holds for the jobs occupied by parents, many families would be strained if schools do not open in the fall. Moreover, parents working remotely do not necessarily have the time for babysitting and homeschooling.

As a side note, I find it interesting that the people championing the continued shutdown of public schools are soundly situated in the upper middle class. Have they considered the plight of a working-class single mother with two children?

The costs of an indefinite educational lockdown are not automatically subsumed by perceived benefits, no matter how much the well-heeled commentariat would like us to think otherwise.

Fourth, keeping schools closed would defy an important principle of governance: Laws should be made based on the rule, not the exception. The overwhelming majority of teachers and students are not at risk from COVID-19, and schools should not remain closed because of the minority that is. Those with preexisting conditions or fear of COVID-19 can seek out options for remote learning without requiring that their colleagues or classmates do the same.

Admittedly, elementary-school students are prone to disregard authority, but they are also the least likely to spread the coronavirus or become seriously ill. The worst offenders can be sent home without subjecting everyone to the cocktail of bad education and social isolation.


The evidence is overwhelmingly in support of public schools returning to physical learning this fall. Such an outcome would be in the best interests of the people who our public-school system is intended to serve: the students receiving an education.

I have yet to comment on private schools. The decisions of non-governmental institutions are not within the realm of public policy and even a committed majority cannot force private schools to open their doors. To say otherwise is to disregard the Constitution of the United States. However, I hope that private school administrators consider the costs and benefits of reopening and make the right choice.

As I demonstrated empirically, it is fallacious to assert that reopening schools is an affront to the health of teachers or students. Some opine that schools could become coronavirus incubators even if few teachers and students become seriously ill, putting the broader public in danger. This concern is well-intentioned but, in reality, simple protocols can be established to lessen the risk of transmission. A teacher could stay at the front of the classroom for his lecture, take a seat before the end of class, and request that the students dismiss without approaching him. Risk mitigation in reopened schools is not only theoretical: Israel, a country of 8.4 million, saw just 261 school-related infections.

Ultimately, exact plans are the domain of doctors, teachers, school districts, and parents. There is one option that should be off the table: prohibiting students from returning to school this fall. The consequences of a continued educational shutdown would be felt for years, if not decades.

This piece was written by Declan M. Hurley. Dustin Leenhouts and Aaron Wineberg provided editorial assistance.