Grappling with the back-to-school conundrum

Grappling with the back-to-school conundrum

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing
Image: Adobe Stock

Nation’s failed response to the pandemic leaves state and local officials in an almost impossible situation

It’s now been almost six months since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States and it’s hard to see how the national response to the disease can be described as anything other than an abject failure. At the most recent count, more than 3 million Americans have become infected and more than 130,000 people have died.

What’s more, unlike many other countries in which coherent national policies featuring aggressive lockdowns along with generous and targeted economic interventions succeeded in keeping people from venturing out too early and rapidly spreading the virus, large swaths of the U.S. have heeded the demands of President Trump by throwing caution to the wind and reopening too quickly.

In Germany, for instance, the rate of infections and deaths has been decreasing for some time. There were only 159 new diagnoses in the entire country this past Sunday.

In contrast, the virus continues to rage throughout much of the U.S. Here in North Carolina – a state that has actually done a better job that many of its neighbors – there were still 1,908 new diagnoses reported on the same day.

The first and most obvious ramification of this failure is, of course, the horrific toll the pandemic is taking on human life and physical well-being, but there are many, many others – from the economic carnage, which the push for a rapid reopening is likely exacerbating, to the destructive impact the pandemic is having on countless families, communities and social institutions.

Increasingly, however, as the summer wears on, the giant and unruly elephant barging its way into the pandemic policy room is the challenge posed by what to do with the schools (particularly in grades K-12) that have been closed since March.

If ever there was a vexing, damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t decision, this is it.

On one hand, it’s clear that society can’t carry on indefinitely without public schools. Not only are children quickly losing out on vast amounts of education and suffering significant “brain drain” that could have serious long-term consequences for their future well-being (not to mention, large measures of structure, socialization skills and healthy meals), it’s simply the case that vast numbers of parents are dependent on their kids going to school so they can work.

While some families may be well-off enough to opt for private school options or to educate their children at home, for millions of others, this simply isn’t an option.

And yet, the alternative – reopening schools to hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and staff in just a few weeks’ time – is just as worrisome. While there are some hopeful indicators from other countries and analyses from domestic scientists that it may be possible to head down this path without bringing about truly disastrous new spikes in infections, there’s no getting around the fact that infections will spread to some extent and that preventable deaths are almost sure to occur.

It’s one thing to talk in the abstract in July about the low rates of infection and health impacts that have been seen among children and young people, but it will be quite another to calmly discuss such matters come September when and if news outlets are trumpeting stories of school-based outbreaks or deaths of beloved teachers or, heaven forbid, an otherwise healthy third grader.

When that happens, panic among parents and educators will be difficult to resist.

Now add to this toxic brew of factors the issue of money – i.e. the need that our schools face to keep their enrollment numbers up in order to draw down the funding they need to survive (an issue that’s clearly playing a huge role in driving colleges and universities to reopen) – and the whole situation gets that much more unwieldy. The Trump administration’s recent threats in this realm have only added to this pressure.

Oh, and just to make matters a little more complicated, public opinion is deeply divided as well.

So, given that closing K-12 schools completely isn’t an option and nether is throwing the doors open as if all were well, what in the heck should North Carolina leaders do?

At this point, it seems that the best choice among many distasteful ones is to proceed with some kind of middle ground or “hybrid” path. While there are many serious questions about the viability and utility such an approach in the UNC System (especially given the higher degree of likelihood that college students could handle an online-only curriculum for another semester) in the K-12 realm, it’s hard to see any other option.

When, as appears likely, Gov. Cooper and the public health experts who advise him announce their decision for schools later today, let’s hope they opt for such a path.

And, perhaps more importantly, let’s hope the people of North Carolina listen to and process the decision with an eye toward the big picture and maybe even a measure of humility and gratitude for the fact that someone else is doing their best to make such an impossible choice under such impossible circumstances.