Joe: It looks like autumn is shaping up to be tumultuous. As we write this there is a resurgence of COVID-19 infections and the opening of schools in this country and the manner in which classes would be held is gripped with uncertainty. A headline in the Daily Journal recently read “U.S. debates school reopening.” Budgets are a problem. There are pandemic induced shortfalls with no financial help and “crystal clear” guidance from the federal government. The two largest school districts in California (Los Angeles and San Diego) are sticking to online learning. It is truly sad. Education for students and kids is the most important issue in the USA. Everyone (meaning each school district) is on their own, having to create rules and regulations for masks, social distancing, location of desks, use of Plexiglas to create a division in common places, staggering school arrival and departure times, limiting classroom attendance to one to three days a week to curb outbreaks as they are doing in New York City, etc. A total failure of leadership exists.
Ken: The dilemma of the day is whether to put students back in the classroom or to continue remote class attendance, and if we do reopen public schools, what precautions to take. This decision is a risk-benefit analysis. The risk is if the schools open as usual, will the highly contagious virus spread like a California brush fire through crowded schools, infecting children and teachers and be carried home to parents and others? On the other hand can remote learning effectively replace a year in the classroom? We have had a few months now to learn about COVID-19. Youngsters under 18 seldom have severe COVID symptoms, and kids have been seldom found to have infected parents. Most parents and teachers of elementary and high school students are in the under 50 demographic that when healthy and without comorbidity has a case fatality rate about the same as seasonal flu. The benefit is that for most students, classroom learning with a live teacher is much superior to looking at a screen; having a youngster at home interferes with a parent rejoining the national workforce; many parents are poorly equipped to take on a teacher role. For the 25 million schoolchildren whose families are in lower income demographics and who lack access to WiFi and a computer, the education gap widens. It looks like the benefits outweigh the risks. At this point, further lockdowns serve only going to prolong the agony.
Joe: Everyone agrees that “classroom learning with a live teacher is much superior to looking at a screen.” but as to risks, any suggestion that the virus is not a great threat to young people is flawed. As noted in the July 16 Chicago Tribune, 36 students at Lake Zurich high school have recently tested positive for the virus, traced to summer athletic camps and social gatherings.
I applaud public school administrators and school teachers on what they must grapple with, doing what they can making decisions trying to find a way to reopen in full with old neglected buildings, cramped hallways and outdated ventilation systems. They deserve our respect and support. The safety of students, teachers and administrative personnel is paramount. Imagine having to work out an entire instruction program for students almost overnight following changing state and CDC directives, on masks, social distancing, etc. If reopening of schools is of a hybrid nature where attendance in school is limited to a few days a week and includes online learning, there is another issue of monies needed for internet access and computers for low income families and rural homes, not even mentioning financial help for those parents who have to stay home with their kids, losing wages and perhaps facing eviction. Public schools, which serve 90 percent of USA children, had money issues even before the pandemic. In the past the federal government has saved banks and airlines. We can’t save public schools? When you have a major issue in a country that rears its ugly head once in a hundred years creating public health and economic losses of a large magnitude, the federal government has to step up to the plate financially. Do you agree?
Ken: The next foreseeable snag for public schools may indeed be the break the bank issue. There is a good chance that in Chicago, and likely elsewhere, as soon as the mayor comes up with a solid plan, the teachers union will demand a COVID hazard pay raise. However, since lockdown measures were first initiated, there have been essential workers keeping groceries, liquor stores, and pot dispensaries, among others, open. Why aren’t teachers essential? Daily tests for elevated temperature, mandated masks, distancing of desks, and staggered attendance all seem reasonable although of unproven benefit. Since state and local budgets are going to be hard pressed to afford another teacher pay hike as well as the paraphernalia that supports remote learning, and states are not allowed to print funny money. Washington needs to shoulder some of the load. This crisis has already caused Congress to allocate over $2 trillion relief/stimulus so what’s a few bucks more? And in the end, who knows what will be the total of the final tab that will all be tallied up in the federal debt line. The cost of the peaceful (?) Black Lives Matter demonstrations alone will be significant. Ultimately, as I see it, this ferociously contagious virus is going to afflict Americans until such a time as we broadly distribute an effective vaccine or until an unknown fraction, likely half or more, of Americans have developed immunity by recovering from an infection.
Joe: I agree with your last sentence. My major complaint is that schools are chronically underfunded and in this pandemic year when so many issues exist reopening schools safely, they are getting very little federal assistance and support. Education and even the safety of students, teachers and administrative personnel are not a high priority in the Trump administration. The fact that the GOP coronavirus bill currently proposed makes it mandatory that students return to their classrooms during this pandemic in order for the school district to get federal money says it all.
Ken: I would call that leadership.