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The US should prioritize reopening schools, not salons and restaurants

America can (and should) save small businesses with money, but schools are what teach kids to read.

Australian Students Return to Regular Lessons as Coronavirus Restrictions Ease
Australian children are heading back to school as the country eases Covid-19 restrictions.
David Gray/Getty Images

Many parents have one thing on their minds: Will schools be open in the fall?

States and cities across the country are eager to get restaurants and salons reopened this month, but they’re equivocal as to whether full-time public education will be ready to resume in September.

That’s a shame. The long-term prospects for the United States are more compromised by keeping children out of school for an extended period than they are by making people continue to delay getting their hair and nails done professionally.

There are no zero-risk activities people can undertake during this pandemic, no public health measures that don’t come with trade-offs. And when you look at the budgetary pressures that state and local officials are facing, the decision to prioritize small business over education is an understandable reaction. They need tax revenue.

But that simply reflects misguided national policy priorities.

The federal government has the financial resources to take care of small-business owners’ very real economic problems. But checks from Uncle Sam can’t teach first-graders the reading fundamentals that will be the bedrock for the rest of their scholarly careers. Distance learning can work well for older kids, but it’s basically a nonstarter for little ones. And while parents working from home can try to keep children on track, the very kids who need school the most — particularly low-income kids and English-language learners — are the least likely to have adults around who can help them.

Preventing new highly lethal coronavirus outbreaks should be priority No. 1. But getting schools up and running again in the fall should be a strong No. 2.

Prolonged school closures are very harmful

A wide range of education policy experts I’ve consulted with agree that prolonged school closures are bad for kids, especially younger and lower-income students. That consensus includes researchers on the left and right, as well as fans and foes of “education reform.”

Some of the concern is based on the belief that summer vacation is a major driver of achievement gaps between low-income and affluent kids.

Courtesy of Education Week

But even skeptics of summer learning loss, like Paul von Hippel, tell me they’re worried about Covid-related school closures. His view is that summer vacation is overhyped as an issue, since even rich kids’ “enriching” activities are, in practice, not that academically oriented. He notes that we do have evidence from other kinds of school-year disruptions that point to similar problems in educational attainment: A two-month teachers strike in New York in 1968 left students two months behind where prior cohorts had been when they returned to school. In 1990, French schools in Belgium closed for a strike while the Flemish-speaking ones did not. Compared with Belgian kids who stayed in school during the strike, French speakers were more likely to repeat a grade and made less progress into higher education later in life. Test scores suffered when Hurricane Katrina closed schools in and around New Orleans.

Serving as dual-hatted homeschoolers and workers is extremely challenging for the parents (evidence suggests that moms are bearing the brunt of the responsibility) who’ve been pressed into doing so.

But by and large, college-educated professionals with white-collar jobs that can be done remotely are going to be in a better position to make sure their kids don’t fall too far behind. The real problems arise when the parents themselves don’t have the skills to teach their kids or have to go to work, or both.

To the extent that public health absolutely requires school closures, we as a society need to make the best of it. But the trade-off here is extremely sharp. And the pressure to rely on school closures as a policy tool fundamentally represents bad policy decisions at the federal level rather than a rational calculus.

Mayors and governors have been left with bad options

Several local government officials I’ve spoken to are aware that they are moving forward on a bad policy trajectory but insist, with some good reason, that they fundamentally have no choice.

The basic problem is that state and local governments are being starved for tax revenue by business closures. From a budgetary perspective, a restaurant or hair salon is a source of revenue. Reopening more businesses sooner means smaller shortfalls and fewer furloughs of cops and librarians. Schools, by contrast, are a cost center. Paying teachers to do remote learning is cheaper than operating actual school buildings — and much cheaper than trying to operate schools with enhanced sanitizing protocols.

But this is a policy choice made at the federal level.

Current interest rates are extremely low — in inflation-adjusted terms, they’re negative — which means Congress can basically extend zero-interest long-term loans to any kind of remotely creditworthy entity. Adam Ozimek and John Lettieri have developed a detailed proposal to do this for small businesses, calling broadly for interest-free 20-year loans to any company with fewer than 500 employees that has experienced a revenue loss of 25 percent or more. If implemented, the idea would be a huge improvement over the current status quo for business owners, as well as make a more gradual approach to “reopening” personally and economically viable.

Conversely, while a low-interest loan isn’t going to teach a kid to read, Congress could — and should — fill state and local coffers so they’re able to ride out a sharp downturn in sales tax revenue without curtailing public services. That would allow local governments to make responsible decisions about both public health and education, instead of rushing willy-nilly into a potential fall disaster.

We could get the worst of both worlds

The problem, obviously, is that schools are moderately difficult to operate in a fully hygienic way. Indeed, little kids in school and child care settings are notorious cesspools of ordinary colds and flus, so the concern that they’d be a huge vector for coronavirus spreading is completely understandable.

But this is exactly what makes the deprioritization of reopening schools so dangerous.

If infection rates are very low three months from now, school should be able to mostly proceed as usual. You’d need extra attention to sanitation, kids wearing masks, and plenty of surveillance testing so that you could shut down a school quickly when a positive case emerges to minimize the extent of intra-school spread. If you start the school year with few sick people in the community, shutdowns should be relatively rare. But if we settle for stagnating caseloads as the price to pay for saving small businesses in America instead of making a real push for suppression this summer, any effort to bring kids back to school in the fall is likely to end in failure.

That risks not just compromising another semester of learning, but also sparking big “second-wave outbreaks,” especially as colder weather makes it harder for people to do things in safer outdoor settings.

Decisions are being made right now by state and local officials, some of whom understand the risks and others who are excessively reckless. But fundamentally, all of them are making decisions that are shaped by the same budgetary realities that only Washington can solve. As long as the president is uninterested in solving them, we’ll be stuck hurtling toward an educational policy disaster.