How School Reopening Got Tied Up in the 2020 Election

And what history tells us about the long-term harms of keeping kids out of school.

Two teachers in an empty classroom, seen through a window that has a colorful welcome sign on it
Jasmine Gilliam and Lucy Baldwin prepare to teach remotely from King Elementary School in Chicago on Sept. 8. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Alec MacGillis tutors kids in Baltimore, and these days he’s particularly worried about a 12-year-old student we’ll call “Shemar,” who’s been having a hard time during the coronavirus lockdown. Shemar’s mom struggles with addiction, and school was the one stable thing in Shemar’s life. Now that his public school has gone remote, Shemar’s lost that too.

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to MacGillis, a reporter at ProPublica, about “the students left behind by remote learning”—which is also the title of his recent New Yorker story. MacGillis explains how President Donald Trump politicized the debate over school reopening and what history tells us about the long-term effects of keeping kids out of school. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: The system is very haphazard—classes keep changing their digital locations up to the last minute. And then kids’ lives are also haphazard—kids joining from a phone when they can, not necessarily sitting at a desk the way they would at school.

Alec MacGillis: Absolutely. There’s been so much attention on the hardware of this and the web connection, just getting the computers to kids, getting the hot spots to kids, getting the Wi-Fi to kids. But that really is half the battle, or even less than half the battle. The much bigger issue I’ve seen here is the communication between the teachers and home—getting the right links, getting the logins, getting the assignments to the kids, and then, even more than that, having the support at home to make sure that a child is actually getting online and to some degree doing the work that is being asked of them.

In the early part of the summer, it seemed like schools might reopen in Baltimore. COVID rates were relatively low, and nationally recognized physicians were making the case that a few simple tweaks to ventilation systems, along with masking, could make schools safe for everyone. But then Trump weighed in, pressuring states to reopen schools in the fall.

It had this instantly negative, polarizing effect. We talk a lot these days about negative polarization in American politics, where you’re for something just because the other side is against it or vice versa, and that’s exactly what happened here. You had Trump all of a sudden, together with Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, make this very, very aggressive call for reopening schools. And in typical Trump fashion, it was essentially reopen schools or else. It sent everyone to their corners, and teachers who might have been open to coming back if it was done safely now suddenly saw this as a Trump thing, something that we were going to be doing just to get the economy going again and just to get Trump reelected. It was so key to understanding why we’ve ended up where we have now, which is this extraordinary situation where you have schools mostly open in a lot of red parts of America, despite the fact that they have generally had higher transmission rates, and then schools closed in a lot of blue cities and towns, including ones that have very low transmission rates.

And something else shifted the national conversation too, right? There were headlines claiming children may carry the coronavirus at high levels, all based on a study out of South Korea.

They had found that 10-to-19-year-olds were hugely contagious—not just more likely to transmit the virus than younger kids, but also more contagious even than most adults. It was this shocking finding, and it had this massive effect on the whole debate. … And that came at the exact moment when a lot of districts were making up their minds, including Baltimore. I heard it being cited by so many people, including rank-and-file teachers and parents. But at the very moment where that was coming out, you had experts who immediately raised questions about the study, immediately saw that there were all these problems with it, very basic methodological problems. But the story stayed up. The headlines got out there. And then, just a few weeks later, the original source of the data acknowledged that there had been problems—but the damage was done.

For all the things we don’t know about the coronavirus, we do know what happens when kids don’t go to school for a long time. You looked back at, for instance, what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. What did that research tell you about what this moment of prolonged remote learning might mean for kids, especially kids like Shemar?

The research is pretty clear: It’s devastating for kids, and the consequences can be lifelong. There are all these different examples from history, ranging from Europe during World War II, when you had kids in Germany and Austria that basically had no schooling for a year or two after their cities were destroyed by aerial bombing. Researchers were later able to go back and compare those German and Austrian kids with kids in Sweden and Switzerland, countries that were neutral in the war and where schooling had gone on as normal, and they found these major differences in income and other markers for how those students had fared later in life.

Another example that I focus on is this really tragic example of Prince Edward County, Virginia, where, very notoriously, the white leaders shut down the public schools entirely in the late ’50s instead of having to integrate them after Brown v. Board of Education. They simply shut the schools down and set up private schools for the white kids, and the Black kids were left with nothing. … Researchers later found, not surprisingly, much higher rates of illiteracy and heartbreaking testimonials from these children as they grew up about how it had really kind of marked them for life and left them feeling, What might my life have been if I had not gone these several years without schooling?

These moments in history where universal education fell short—they’re really ugly, often racist. I wonder if you see echoes of that history happening now in Baltimore.

Oh, absolutely. But the irony of it is … right now the cities where the schools are more likely to be closed are Democratic cities and states. A Black child is right now more likely to be going to school in Florida or Texas than in Maryland or Massachusetts or California.

In the piece, I quoted a white progressive activist in Detroit who was objecting to the fact that they were holding summer school in Detroit, in-person summer school, and arguing that this was putting Black children at risk, and compared this to the notorious Tuskegee experiments. … The fact is that the real experiment that is happening now is the reverse, that we’re experimenting to see what’s going to happen if we have all these Black and Hispanic children not going to school, because right now the numbers are that Black children are about half as likely to be going to school right now as white children. That is the actual experiment.

A lot of these decisions seem to be made for reasonable reasons, not through malice. Do you see a villain here?

I see lots of villains, starting of course with Trump and his failure to control the virus. But I also think we have to be honest about one other factor that has been driving these closures in blue cities and towns, and that is the fact that for a lot of Democrats and liberals, COVID has become something of a metaphor for Trump. We see them as one and the same thing. Because his failure to control COVID has made it so much worse for us, the scarier that COVID is, the scarier we see COVID as being, the greater his failure in controlling it. … I do believe that to some extent the risk of COVID in schools has been magnified in blue cities and towns because we have so linked it with Trump himself. And I suspect that if Trump were to lose the election, very quickly, in a lot of these places, we’d start to see a different approach to the school question. … I think we have to be honest about that political dynamic.

You do a little bit of storytelling about the history of universal education in the United States in your article. Why did you think it was important to go that far back, at the same time you were telling the story of Shemar and remote learning in Baltimore?

What I saw happening here in a big picture way was that we were putting at risk universal education in America. We were really at risk of returning to the early 19th century, before we created what were then called the common schools, this public school system across the North and the Midwest in the mid-19th century, that was really kind of a marvel of the world. We were one of the first countries to set up a real public school system that most children attended and that was supported by taxes, that had some kind of real statewide, systemwide organization. And it was so integral to American democracy and American self-government that we have that kind of a system.

If you have kids actually going to school in some kinds of schools, but not actually going to school in other cities and other kinds of schools, that’s getting close to no longer being a universal education. And it really bothers me when I see some people say—and I’ve seen this on both ends of the political spectrum—what’s the big deal here? You know, these urban schools, we all know they had lots of problems and lots of inequities—is it really that big a deal if kids are no longer actually going to them? And I think, wow, step back and apply that argument to some other area. Apply it to food. You know, we know a lot of poor folks, their diets are really, really unhealthy—is it really that big a deal if they don’t eat anymore right now? … I would argue that schools, even the most imperfect, underfunded, struggling schools, still provide a whole lot to children that they’re not getting right now when they’re at home in their dark rooms.

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