Debating the Progressive Case for Opening Schools

One Harvard public health expert argues we’re wasting valuable time.

A teenage girl works on a laptop, sitting in an easy chair inside a cluttered mobile home. Behind her a dog looks out the open door in which a boy is standing.
A high schooler in Phoenix does her homework on Oct. 7. John Moore/Getty Images

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Starting in July, we noticed that opinions on in-person school among people we knew or followed on social media were split pretty evenly along partisan lines. Fueled by Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, for the most part, if you were Republican, you wanted schools open; if you were a Democrat, you wanted schools closed. This divide was mirrored in policy: In blue districts, a lot of schools went to remote learning. In red districts, a lot of kids went back to school. But we’re entering month three of this accursed school year, and more and more parents of all political stripes are starting to wonder: Was going all-remote the right thing to do? Should we be pushing harder for kids to return? Joseph Allen from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health has been making the case that remote school is failing students so profoundly that it’s a crisis that needs to be addressed now. We talked to Allen on Thursday’s episode of Mom and Dad Are Fighting. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joseph Allen: Kids out of school is a national emergency. I’m a progressive, I’m a liberal, but I follow the science here. I’m a scientist first and foremost.

Dan Kois: I really crave some kind of scientific consensus on either side of this question. What does the science say about the health risks for opening schools, for students and teachers?

Allen: First and foremost, when we have kids out of school, we are creating different types of risk, devastating risk in terms of virtual dropouts. Where I am in Boston, 10,000 high school students disappeared in May. UNICEF reports that kids are more likely to suffer from abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence. So, as a society, it should be our absolute priority to get kids back in school because of these known and important risk factors.

Can we keep kids and adults safe in school? The answer is yes. Look at what’s happening in hospitals, where we’ve driven down risk to health care workers since the early days by just doing a couple of things. It’s universal masking, it’s hand-washing, it’s healthy building control strategies like ventilation and filtration. When it comes to kids, through some quirk, kids are less likely to get this virus than adults. If they do get it, they are much less likely to die. They’re less likely to transmit—particularly the younger kids are less likely to transmit this. So we know if it’s not schools as usual—if you have these controls in place, kids wearing masks, ventilation, higher filtration—we can keep both kids and adults safe. And in that larger context of risk, recognizing the costs of not getting them back are truly devastating.

Elizabeth Newcamp: The scientific case for opening definitely seems to be there. But so many schools say they can’t do these things.

Allen: I think a lot of people squandered the summer. I’ve been very careful not to make recommendations that are going to be multimillion-dollar fixes and it’s going to take five months to do. I’m talking about some of the basics here that nearly every school can do. The problem is what I’m seeing is mostly this closed mindset, right? We teach kids growth mindset, but with schools, we tend to have a closed mindset where we say, “Well, we can’t do it.” There’s always something you can do. These are simple steps—opening up the window, using a portable air cleaner, bringing in a bit more outdoor air through your existing systems, replacing the filters, just making sure your system’s working the way it should be and everyone in a mask.

Jamilah Lemieux: I appreciate and understand all of that. But if I were to get a bad case of COVID, I feel very confident that I would be left to die. I’m a Black woman. I’m a college-trained, middle-class, well-spoken, insured Black woman. But the treatment that I’ve received in hospitals throughout my life—good hospitals, great hospitals—has been subpar. And that is certainly among the many factors that have led to the high number of deaths amongst African Americans and other people of color during this pandemic. And as the parent of a Black child, there’s no scenario in which in this moment I would feel comfortable sending a child back to school.

Allen: This virus has exposed the deep problems in our country, including systemic racism. But this is actually what concerns me the most here—we’re now telling under-resourced schools to send kids home. There’s an assumption there that a caregiver is there, two parents are there who can help, the technology is there, they have a working computer, they have internet access. We know that’s not the case. And so we’re sending them home to this hybrid plan saying that we’ll be safer. Maybe from COVID—I’m not convinced that’s the case, but that’s the logic—they’ll be safer from COVID. Meanwhile, we present this yearlong gap in learning, which will further widen racial disparities in learning that will persist for a lifetime.

And if I think about individual risk in the school, thinking about the controls that need to be in place, we can still control risk. Even though the data is showing that a Black child or brown child are more likely to die, the absolute likelihood of them dying is still very low compared to adults. Now, that doesn’t mean we should accept that disparity and say, “OK, that’s fine.” It’s still a problem. It needs to be addressed. But in terms of individual risk, for example, your kid, the absolute risk is still low.

Lemieux: I think the skepticism that you’re receiving is not reflective of America’s disinterest in education. I don’t know that I could get on board with the idea of opening schools. I don’t know that I could sign someone who makes $35,000 a year up to then become an essential worker and for their life to be hanging in the balance based on whether children mask up or not.

Allen: Every loss of life through this virus is an absolute tragedy. One of the problems we see here is that we’re not always looking at the denominator or the success stories. When a teacher dies, it’s a tragedy. We have to understand why that happened and prevent it from happening again. The same time, we have many examples where places have stayed open and there are not cases. And this is through the heart of the outbreak, even in New York City.

There are two things that have to happen. One is two conditions precedent for reopening. One, you have to drive down community spread. So if you’re in a place that is rip-roaring with cases, that’s going to be a problem. You’re going to have cases that are introduced. It has nothing to do with the school. It’s just a numbers game. And the second part of that is it can’t be schools as usual.

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