When Roy Romer took over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District after three terms as governor of Colorado in the 1990s, he faced a daunting challenge. The district was 150,000 desks short, forcing kids to use classrooms in shifts on chaotic year-round schedules. It didn’t work well, he says, especially for kids who were already behind and struggling with difficulties at home. He decided there was no alternative but to try to get the facilities students needed.
“We built 137 schools, made it available so every child could have a place in the classroom, and massively changed the course of instruction in LA,” Romer said.
America’s entire education system is teetering on the brink of catastrophe. Distance learning has proved to be the education disaster experts feared, parents are at the end of their tethers, and the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) is now calling for schools to reopen. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unlike the AAP, has assessed the school question essentially without reference to the educational impacts. They are calling for schools to operate with “desks at least 6 feet apart when feasible,” which would make it impossible for schools to maintain anything resembling the normal number of students in a classroom. Many districts are planning to have kids in school only two days a week to free up more space.
That’s a logistical nightmare for working parents, and it also seems unlikely to be adequate educationally — the same problem Romer faced in Los Angeles in the early 21st century but on steroids.
Now Romer and his son, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer, are calling for another ambitious (but hopefully faster) plan to get kids back into normal classrooms: large-scale testing. If you can test students, teachers, and staff frequently, isolate the positive cases, and retest their close contacts, it is possible to control the spread of the virus without heavy-handed closures. Things like masks and an effort to shift as much activity as possible outside would serve to further enhance the impact.
This would, again, be a big effort, but Paul Romer thinks it’s worth it.
“The CDC guidance on schools here is just irresponsible and inexcusable,” he says. “They’re taking no account of what’s happening to student learning.”
A shift to a testing-based strategy rather than a distancing-based one would require both money and regulatory changes. Right now, everything from federal fiscal policy to CDC guidance is conspiring against a safe reopening, raising the prospect of a lost year (or potentially even more) of American education with massive long-term damage that will exacerbate every class, racial, and gender gap in the country.
Distance learning isn’t working
The United States could have spent May and June pushing for all-out suppression of SARS-CoV-2, which would have allowed schools to reopen this fall under safer conditions. Instead, many states — not just red ones but blue ones like California — let their guards down and plowed ahead with reopening indoor venues like bars and restaurants that can’t be enjoyed with masks, leading to a surge in case counts.
At the same time as data has poured in, it’s becoming increasingly clear that America’s spring experiment with distance learning was a failure.
Back when the distance learning experiment was relatively new, Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partner and an education policy staffer in the Clinton administration, had the most optimistic assessment of school closures of any expert I found, saying that for older kids from middle-class families, “this will be not that big of a deal.”
Nonetheless, he was very worried about “early grades where we’re focused on literacy, which really is foundational to your experience in school and life.” And absolutely everyone was extremely alarmed about the fate of kids from lower-income families, kids whose parents don’t speak English, kids whose parents can’t work from home, and others who are most vulnerable to breakdowns in the education system.
Research from the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker suggests that, eventually, the burden of school closures overtaxed even most affluent families’ ability to help their kids keep up. As this chart shows, student progress in Zearn math (a popular distance learning program used in my son’s school and many others) actually rose in high-income zip codes for the first six weeks or so of the crisis, offsetting a decline in progress in low-income zip codes. Then, starting in May, even the more affluent areas started falling, and by the mid-June end of the normal school year, progress had plummeted across the board.
The upshot is that white-collar parents probably can make distance learning work for their kids at the expense of their sanity and job performance, but working-class parents often can’t. And nobody can keep it up forever.
A team of researchers affiliated with the NWEA, Brown University, and the University of Virginia concluded in a May working paper that, based on what we know from research on past closures, “students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math.” The reading losses in particular are projected to be concentrated in students in the bottom two-thirds of the socioeconomic status distribution.
The urgent need to start making up for lost time rather than seeing further regression is one reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics is so adamant that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” But given the conjunction of pressures on state and local governments, there’s no feasible way to get this done without a dramatic improvement in federal leadership.
State and local governments are broke
The original sin of the schooling problem was the decision to move ahead with indoor eating and drinking rather than focus on suppression and relaunching education.
But as unwise as this was, it’s not exactly a mystery. Bars and restaurants generate tax revenue for hard-hit state and local budgets. Schools don’t. The Trump administration has worked for months to block generous federal aid to state and local government in part out of generic zeal for small government, but in part because Trump wanted a hasty reopening of economic activity so he didn’t want to make going slow fiscally viable. As cases have surged in the Sunbelt, many states are reconsidering their reopening plans. But that still creates a situation where there’s no money to spare for extra school initiatives.
Emily Oster, the Brown University economist and parenting book author, calls in her newsletter for “creative staffing” to make it possible for children to at least be supervised full-time even if they can’t be in a traditional classroom for a full school day:
Here is a proposal. There are many students on college gap years (turns out, many students do not want to start college or return to college online. Athletes whose seasons are cancelled may wait a year to preserve eligibility). These people are not teachers, obviously. But they are low risk for the virus, and with some training I think they could help.
Imagine your kid goes to school with their normal teacher and half their class in the morning. They do school. Then, after lunch, they go to another location — a curtained off space in the gym? A trailer? — with two gap year kids. They do a little online math or reading. They color. They have recess.
It’s not perfect, but I’m guessing kids would get a lot more online Zearn badges if they were supervised in school rather than being asked to do it at home. Plus, they are out of the house so parents can work.
Oster touts this as more fiscally realistic than a Romer-style plan for massive testing, but she still concedes that it would obviously cost money. But how much?
“Honestly, I have no idea,” she tells me. The problem is that, as currently constituted, state and local governments don’t have any money at all to spare.
Wesley Tharpe, the deputy director of state policy research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates that, over the next two calendar years, “state budget shortfalls will total about $615 billion.” Under those circumstances, there’s just no way school districts will be able to initiate even modest efforts to increase spending. It fundamentally all hinges on whether or not congressional Republicans are willing to let the federal government ride to the financial rescue. Certainly the federal government has the capacity.
Right now, the interest rate on government debt is less than the rate of inflation, meaning it is extremely affordable to borrow money for anything that has any kind of long-term payoff — which educating children surely does. So while district leaders and especially philanthropists should pay close attention to Oster’s ideas, it’s still worth pressuring the federal government to truly invest in mass testing. But right now, in the absence of funding or capacity, some federal agencies continue to downplay the value of testing.
Regulators need to embrace testing
Many American colleges are in a different economic situation than are K-12 schools — because they charge tuition, their financial circumstances get better if they can have kids on campus, so they are eager to invest money in finding safe ways to do so. Paying to make sure all students are tested before they arrive easily passes cost-benefit scrutiny, so colleges with the means are inclined to do it.
But the CDC’s official guidelines discourage this kind of “entry testing,” saying that “it is unknown if entry testing in [institutions of higher education] provides any additional reduction in person-to-person transmission of the virus” because it “has not been systematically studied.”
Obviously it hasn’t been studied since there’s never been a Covid-19 pandemic before, so this style of argument would disqualify doing anything at all. But the mechanism by which entry testing would reduce transmission — making sure that nonsymptomatic but infected students don’t show up on campus — hardly involves an outlandish untested theory.
“I have no idea what the hell they are doing,” Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington biologist and scholar of science communication tells me. “Why was the absence of evidence allowed to trump common sense?”
The Trump White House relies on routine surveillance testing of nonsymptomatic individuals (daily for those in closest contact with the president and weekly for the second-tier staff) to ensure its own smooth operation. Harvard University has announced plans to have every on-campus student tested once every three days.
Romer’s mathematical modeling shows that you could suppress the virus across the entire population by testing every American once every two weeks, even if the test had a relatively high error rate. Trying to apply this to the more limited — but socially significant — case of students and school personnel could be a game-changer for American education. But Romer notes that the federal government has been routinely hostile to the idea of implementing the kind of surveillance testing the White House uses for the rest of the country.
Back in early May, a team of scientists at Rutgers University developed a Covid-19 test that relies on saliva rather than swabs. Romer says, “the FDA said Rutgers can do it but nobody else can do it.”
In other words, rather than promulgate a standard saliva testing procedure that labs around the country could emulate, authorization still needs to be done individual lab by individual lab. So the Rutgers breakthrough never led to a massive expansion of saliva testing. Instead, we have Rutgers and now a separate lab at UC Berkeley which last week started submitting the paperwork to the FDA. The state of Nebraska successfully used pooled testing (where you test a whole bunch of people’s samples at once) to get around capacity constraints, but they were technically breaking the law and school districts don’t want to follow them.
In political terms, the regulatory issues and the fiscal issues are closely linked. If public health agencies announced that mass surveillance testing is useful for educational institutions and technologically possible to boot, that would only heighten the question of why the federal government isn’t appropriating the money that’s needed.
A leadership vacuum
Schools operating at full capacity under reasonably safe conditions would be an enormous step toward normalcy and, as such, a boon to Trump’s reelection efforts. But achieving that goal would require work and leadership. Instead, NBC News reports that White House officials are preparing a pivot to a new message: “The virus is with us, but we need to live with it.”
But if schools follow the CDC’s guidelines for how to “live with” the virus, then children’s educations will be fatally compromised — as will parents’ ability to do their jobs.
And if districts try to force schools to operate normally even as a pandemic rages, then teachers — many of whom may be much more vulnerable than their students or live with people who are — are going to revolt. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), reminds me that “we did our guidance first on April 30,” releasing a detailed plan that called for a much more cautious summer economic reopening in order to lay the groundwork for safe education in the fall. It’s likely too late for that, but it’s definitely not too late to invest resources in making school reopening safer.
“Teachers want to reopen and see their kids again because remote learning was a nightmare,” says AFT press secretary Andrew Crook. “But it has to be safe and that means more money.”