When the Centers for Disease Control released its recommendations for how children could return to school safely this fall, it prompted lots of eye-rolling among, well, anyone who has ever met children. The CDC suggests that kids over age two wear masks; that they “be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering”; that art supplies or toys be shared on a limited basis or cleaned between uses; that all students’ belongings be kept separate; that students sit at least six feet apart; that only one child should sit in each row on school buses; and that each time a student uses a tissue, he should throw it out and wash his hands for 20 seconds.
One wonders how these guidelines will be applied in elementary schools, where the phrase “keep your hands to yourself” is repeated constantly, for good reason. The answer, unfortunately, is that the guidelines may serve as a rationale for keeping schools closed. New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza puts the chances of schools opening in September at 50-50. Public and private schools around the U.S. are preparing for the possibility of continuing online education, and public officials are doing little to allay fears about putting kids back into social settings. “I would not send my children to day camp,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo has said. “If I would not send my children to day camp, then I would not ask anyone to send their children to day camp.”
But many parents of school-age children would like the option. How are they supposed to work when they have nowhere to send their children? Even parents of older children, who can generally be left alone, may not be able to depend on them to attend all their Zoom classes. Los Angeles reported that as many as a third of its students were failing to log in each day.
Few parents or teachers think that online school is a reasonable substitute for the real thing. Students are asked to watch videos and complete worksheets, but it’s hard to tell who is understanding the material, and even harder to help when there is little time for real-time interaction. A friend who teaches literacy in a Connecticut elementary school told me that her union instructed teachers not to conduct learning in real time because if they “said the wrong thing it could be recorded and used against them.”
Even real-time learning is no bargain. I watched as my own daughter’s second-grade teachers tried valiantly to keep students interested, but Zoom meetings, like conference calls, are noticeably slower than in-person gatherings. No one knows who will speak next. It’s harder to read people’s expressions. Fewer visual cues are available, and each student takes longer to realize that he or she is being called on. And there is nothing else to look at—none of those colorful classroom posters—but the screen.
For older kids, other problems intrude. They’ve taken few, if any, tests. For some school leaders, the pandemic provides an excuse to do away with the standardized tests they’ve long despised. Even a simple math or history test becomes a fraught exercise. A friend who teaches seventh and eighth grade at a Westchester private school has found a serious cheating problem. The school has figured out a way to lock the kids’ laptops and proctor exams on Zoom, but ensuring that students are not looking at an iPad or a textbook off-screen requires two adults for a class of 15 kids.
Given that, as a Brookings Institution report finds, “students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning” and that “income-based reading gaps grew over the summer,” we can only imagine the decline once students have effectively been out of school from March until God knows when. And it’s not just academic skills that will be lost; it’s also the social and emotional competencies that kids develop from interacting with peers and teachers. Researchers at UCLA found that when preteens were sent to an overnight camp with no screens for five days, their ability to read facial expressions and emotional cues improved significantly.
Then there is the physical toll that staying at home will continue to have on students. Heavy use of screens has long been tied to obesity. Without any organized sports or even school-sponsored PE—and no open basketball courts or playgrounds—plenty of kids won’t get off the couch this summer. Those who do will have parents who find workarounds. The parents have swing sets or pools in their backyards or send kids to play tennis. They pay for personal training. Or they have the extra time and energy to get kids outside themselves. Once again, the kids already at a disadvantage—from poorer homes, with single parents—will get the short end of the lockdown stick.
Medical experts seem to agree that the coronavirus does not affect children in significant numbers, that those who do get it experience almost entirely mild cases, and that kids’ chances of contracting a new form of the disease look exceedingly small. It’s true that kids can transmit the virus to adults at home, that certain teachers may not be able to take these risks, and that some kids probably won’t be able to attend. But even given these caveats, other countries hit hard by the virus are opening schools. The United States needs to do so as well.
Remarkably, as many as two-thirds of parents want to keep schools closed “until officials are certain that reopening will not pose a health risk.” Maybe that’s not as surprising as it sounds: American parents have spent decades trying to minimize risks for children, arming them with everything from bicycle helmets to tracking devices. The combination of public-safety campaigns and a never-ending stream of lawsuits against schools, toy companies, and other entities involved with children has created a culture of overprotection. Federal, state, and local officials have spent three months tapping into that instinct by stoking our fears of the virus. If they can’t bring themselves to explain that opening schools poses only minimal risks to kids, they should at least concede that keeping them closed presents plenty of dangers of its own.