Coronavirus

This Time, We Really Should Think of the Children

Virtual learning harms disadvantaged kids. For the privileged, schools already reopened.

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The ongoing debate over whether to reopen K-12 schools amid the pandemic has pitted teachers unions against frustrated parents, white people against people of color (who are disproportionately at risk of COVID-19), and, of course, cautious Democratic politicians against the Trump administration, which pressured the Centers for Disease Control to support a reopening agenda, according to a new report in The New York Times.

But the one group whose opinions on the matter have received very little attention is the group most directly harmed by virtual learning: the students themselves.

There aren't many youngsters writing op-eds for major newspapers, or appearing on cable news to air their views on reopening. Kindergarteners don't usually attend town halls or participate in drive-by protests (except, occasionally, as props). "There are no polls of six-year-olds," laments Meira Levinson, a professor of education at Harvard University.

Levinson's comment appeared in a terrific, though horrendously depressing New Yorker article about "the children left behind by virtual learning." Reporter Alex MacGillis notes that many private schools are currently open while public schools in large, inner-city districts are mostly closed. The result is a two-tiered education system: Wealthier families can provide their kids with something approaching a normal school experience, while the less privileged must "attend" school from home via Zoom. But for many kids, including and especially marginalized kids, virtual learning has been an absolute failure.

MacGillis details the frustrations of one specific Baltimore child who is frequently shuffled between the households of a mother with drug addiction and a grandmother with many other youngsters to wrangle. In-person education was a source of stability for this child—without it, he's socially neglected, intellectually under-stimulated, and rapidly falling behind his peers. He may be protected from COVID-19, but he will likely be at greater risk of all sorts of socially undesirable consequences simply because he can't go to school. It's a heartbreaking story that probably describes the terrible situation in which countless economically disadvantaged children now find themselves.

That remote learning is likely harming a significant number of children and worsening existing inequalities should be front and center in any policy discussion about reopening schools. MacGillis's article includes the perspective of the most anti-reopening faction—teachers unions—but gently suggests that their wariness is extreme given current scientific understanding, which holds that young children are not likely disease vectors. (An influential study from South Korea that purportedly reached the opposite conclusion was seriously flawed, according to multiple experts MacGillis consulted.) Any advocate for keeping public schools closed in Baltimore, New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, or elsewhere must grapple with the fact that schools are open in Europe, "including in towns and cities whose test-positivity rates were well above those in Maryland and many other parts of the U.S." MacGillis goes on to report that:

Schools were also opening in roughly half of all districts in the U.S., and so far there was little evidence of the virus spreading inside school buildings. In Connecticut, many small towns and suburbs were offering in-person instruction—but not New Haven, which is heavily Black and Hispanic. In Texas, Florida, and Georgia, where many schools had been open since mid-August, COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalization rates generally continued to decline from their summer highs, despite reported outbreaks at some schools. In Wisconsin, where teachers' unions had been hollowed out by Governor Scott Walker, schools were opening in much of the state (though not in Milwaukee). A middle-school teacher in Sheboygan told me that kids were spending the whole day in the same classroom, and the smell of sanitizer was overpowering. But so far there had been no confirmed cases at the school.

College reopenings, on the other hand, have produced significant COVID-19 spread—though outbreaks can be managed, quite successfully, by frequent testing of the entire student body. But for K-12, it's mostly good news thus far.

Given all this, the Trump administration's effort to push for school reopenings is hardly misguided: Many children who are currently at home in front of their laptops would be much better off in a classroom. And yet The New York Times would like readers to believe that there's something nefarious going on here, thus the recent article, "Behind the White House Effort to Pressure the C.D.C. on School Openings."

The Times largely rests its assertion that the administration improperly pressured the CDC to greenlight school reopenings on a single verifiable piece of information: White House staffers asked the agency to create a chart specifically showing that young kids and teenagers were overwhelmingly unlikely to die from the coronavirus. According to the Times:

The White House seized on a bar chart the C.D.C. distributed that week to other agencies, which showed that 60 percent of coronavirus deaths were people over the age of 75. Officials asked the C.D.C. to provide a new chart to show people 18 and under as a separate group—rather than including them as normal in an under-25 category—in an effort to demonstrate that the risk for school-age children was relatively low.

The Times obscures that this is a completely reasonable request given the available medical evidence about the effect of COVID-19 on different age groups. Why, given the scientific consensus, would it be "normal" to lump everyone under 25 in the same risk category? The death rate for 20-somethings is not the issue here. The White House was perfectly justified in asking for a chart showing the near-zero death rates for the actual K-12 set.

"If the CDC was refusing to provide age breakdowns on COVID risks in a discussion about *K-12* school openings, pointlessly lumping in the 18-25 *ADULTS* in there and not separating out 1-5, 5-12 & 12-18, it would be CDC who was terribly in the wrong," writes Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and professor at the University of North Carolina, on Twitter. "This is baffling by the NYT."

The Times also lambasts physician Deborah Birx, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, for asking the CDC to include information about negative mental health outcomes for children learning remotely. While most people would agree that the mental health of children living below, at, and near the poverty line is objectively important information when discussing a policy that has made their mental health worse, the Times reporters treat this consideration as nefarious and unscientific.

Consigning disadvantaged children to weeks or possibly months of virtual learning would be a devastating choice—one that American cities are thus far quite alone in making. The school reopening debate might be the first in living memory where an appeal to "think of the children"—often a lazy and emotional rhetorical tool—should probably be made more loudly and in earnest.

NEXT: Trump Still Doesn't Have a Health Care Plan. He Does Have a $6.6 Billion Medicare Bribe for Seniors.

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  1. You keep reading the NYT, you will be sorely disappointed. They ran off anyone with a brain and critical thinking skills.

    1. Trump will try to outdo Obama by giving all the poor Black student iPads to compliment their mother’s Obama iPhone.

      1. And they’ll both be traded to subsidize grandma’s crack addiction.

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  2. “MacGillis details the frustrations of one specific Baltimore child who is frequently shuffled between the households of a mother with drug addiction and a grandmother with many other youngsters to wrangle. In-person education was a source of stability for this child—without it, he’s socially neglected, intellectually under-stimulated, and rapidly falling behind his peers.”

    It would appear that the problem is not the remote learning, per se, but the prevalence of dysfunctional family units and the transformation of public education into a widespread, government sponsored babysitting program.

    1. This is an opportunity to keep school buildings closed permanently. Sell them to a developer and let them be converted into apartments, offices etc.

    2. Perhaps in that 1 case, but I can say definitively that both my children, neither of which have shitty home lives, fare exponentially better in school than via zoom.

      1. I have no doubt. I know many people whose children are far more distracted at home than they otherwise would be in the classroom.

    3. “It would appear that the problem is not the remote learning, per se, but the prevalence of dysfunctional family units and the transformation of public education into a widespread, government sponsored babysitting program.”

      Yes.

    4. Geiger, you’re right. But how many of those parents would have never had children if there had not been a public school system with such long days?

      I know many parents who chose to have children because the schools made it possible to continue their careers. Many others chose to live in certain areas because of the avails lilt year of “good” schools.

      So it’s unfair that the rug was pulled out from beneath the feet of these parents.

      Also consider: The public schools have led to better economic conditions over the past century because of that childcare function, not just the expertise of the teachers. The greatest expansion of economic opportunity for dual-parent households coincided with longer school days.

  3. >>Virtual learning harms disadvantaged kids

    the public school system doesn’t?

    1. This entire argument seems tautological since it essentially boils down to the assertion that being disadvantaged places one at a disadvantage. The article seems to advocate for a solution (in-person public education) that would not necessarily have the effect of mitigating the disadvantages (a child living in a crack house, for example).

      I think the far simpler argument in favor of a return to in-person learning is that the odds of a child contracting a deadly viral strain in the classroom (or, outside the classroom) and subsequently transmitting that deadly strain to his teachers and/or family members are next to non-existent.

      The argument makes a lot more sense from the perspective of managing relative risk, which is so minimal as to be negligible. It does not, however, make a whole lot of sense from the perspective of eliminating social dysfunctions within disintegrating family units.

      Unfortunately, because most people in government and the media are not willing to simply admit that COVID-19 is a non-issue, we have to continue propping up the notion that public education is inherently good for society because it removes children from the home and away from their families.

      1. “[M]ost people in government and the media are not willing to simply admit that COVID-19 is a non-issue[.]”

        This. We have mountains of evidence to show that for most people, CV is no worse than the flu, and to some age groups (like school aged kids), is less harmful. But very few will come out and say it.

      2. “… it essentially boils down to the assertion that being disadvantaged places one at a disadvantage. The article seems to advocate for a solution … that would not necessarily have the effect of mitigating the disadvantages ..”

        The problem is that public schools have morphed into all-purpose social service agencies: free meals, vaccinations, social workers, after school child-care, pre-school (4K), summer programs, etc.

        The “purpose” of the school is no longer education. That’s merely one of many purposes, and maybe not even the most important.

        I understand how it happened. Once upon a time, I was a public high school teacher. Kids came hungry, dirty, beaten, sick, half-dressed in the winter… No wonder they were failing. Were we supposed to ignore that just teach them math?

        “Being disadvantaged places one at a disadvantage.”

        In theory, it wasn’t crazy to think that those problems could be addressed by the schools. The kids were already there and the teachers would know who needed help. In practice, it completely changed the mission of the school.

        In retrospect, it would have been wiser to place appropriate services across the street or something like that. Then the school could focus on teaching and refer students to outside services. If the school closed down, the services would still be there.

        What we have now never should have happened, but it did. We’ve got a social-service-in-school behemoth. How do we unwind it?

        1. Good points, and an excellent perspective.

          “How do we unwind it?”

          Perhaps by permitting it to collapse.

          1. >>Perhaps by permitting it to collapse.

            I try to lobby for this ^^^. Also there was something whack with the site earlier and I was unable to timely agree w/yours above

          2. Perhaps. Maybe a collapse is the only way to fix it. It hurts to think about the kids that will be hurt by a collapse, but a) some things can’t be fixed and b) the system isn’t serving them well now anyway. Tragedies happen. We wipe our tears and move on.

            Also – after re-reading my initial response, I’m not sure it was clear that I was adding to your points, not disagreeing at all. Not that you need the affirmation of an internet stranger, but I wanted to clarify that.

            1. No, I think it would be feasible to separate things a la carte over time. It didn’t get this way overnight, it’s going to need time to dismantle too.

        2. It’s one of those awkward, kludgy political compromises. There’s never been the will in this country to go all-out and institute creches, nor to go the other way and burn it all down, so instead mission creep by accretion.

  4. . MacGillis’s article includes the perspective of the most anti-reopening faction—teachers unions—but gently suggests that their wariness is extreme given current scientific understanding, which holds that young children are not likely disease vectors.

    Don’t… piss off the Teacher’s Unions… Step very carefully here. Be gentle in your criticism. Can we make this more about Trump?

  5. Chicago, or elsewhere must grapple with the fact that schools are open in Europe, “including in towns and cities whose test-positivity rates were well above those in Maryland and many other parts of the U.S.”

    Didn’t Fauci tell us to ignore comparisons like this?

    1. Probably, at this point he’s taken every conceivable position.

      1. I understand that his wife is very flexible for her age.

        1. 6 feet is three people. I’m not judging.

    2. We have three voices of sanity v. COVID now. DR. Scott Atlas, Senator Rand Paul and Governor Ron DiSantis.

  6. While most people would agree that the mental health of children living below, at, and near the poverty line is objectively important information when discussing a policy that has made their mental health worse, the Times reporters treat this consideration as nefarious and unscientific.

    The Times has one agenda only. If you’re not on board, you can quit.

    1. I’m not sure society necessarily needs to be organized so as to be as good as it can possibly be for the poorest among us. There are millions of working moms out there who can’t go back to work right now because the schools are closed, and they’re not poor. We should be worried about them, too.

      Meanwhile, closing the public schools down may have extra benefits for plenty of others. This article is about how teachers are making more money teaching in Covid Pods than they were when they working for the school district.

      “She now makes more money teaching six first-graders from six families in Wellesley, Mass. They are following their public school’s curriculum, and she’s added cooking, yoga and earth sciences, with lots of hands-on experiments

      NEA president Becky Pringle agrees that these new arrangements help teachers earn money. But she worries pods will become more widespread and damage a public-education system already reeling from budget cuts and struggling to fund Covid-19 safety measures. This could open the door for more inequity, segregation and unsafe workplaces, since pods are expensive and unregulated, she says.

      https://www.wsj.com/articles/teachers-find-higher-pay-and-growing-options-in-covid-pods-11601204400?

      It’s kind of funny that they don’t mention that the NEA is the largest teachers’ union in the United States. And notice the message there–listen to any labor union, government bureaucrat, or lefty news organization covering this, and you’ll hear the same story.

      “This could open the door for more inequity, segregation and unsafe workplaces, since pods are expensive and unregulated, she says.”

      Bullshit!

      In fact, isn’t that the socialist/progressive mantra on every issue? We can’t have freedom because it’s racist, hurts the poor, and it’s dangerous for children–since it’s unregulated.

      Please don’t bail out the states or give money to these teachers’ unions!

      Incidentally, chipping in for a pod for your kids may cost less for working moms and dads than the portion of their (or their landlord’s) property taxes–that go to pay the salaries at your local public school. Your pod has a lot less overhead in terms of paying for the salaries of bureaucrats than your local school district, and you can oversee the behavior of your teacher as carefully as you want. Your pod teacher is all about pleasing you and the other parents–and doesn’t need to please any bureaucrats. Want to fire your teacher this week and hire another one next week–for a couple weeks to see how it works out? That’s up to you! There are a ton of middle class kids who may be getting a much better education with a pod than they would through a public school. They may have a hard time getting a lot of them to go back to the way it used to be.

      1. That would be great if this led to the diminution of public schools. And I do see a lot of parents deciding that their kids don’t need it.
        But I’m not holding my breath.

        1. Anything that requires effort won’t last long.
          Sending your kid to public school requires the least amount of effort.

        2. It is, but on a small scale. I have a friend who owns a private school, and after a few declining years, her enrollment is up by about 60 kids this Fall. Most are dissatisfied public school parents.

      2. Would love to see test scores as related to pod and non-pod kids. Even though tests are racist.

  7. It’s hard to believe that a New York Times reporter would make the teachers’ union’s case for them four weeks ahead of an election–and make it all about President Trump–isn’t it?

    One of the main reasons the Republicans declined to pass Pelosi’s $3.5 trillion stimulus was because it provided $1 trillion to bail states like New York out of their self-inflicted, non-coronavirus related pension obligations, and it’s stuff like the teachers’ union’s refusal to reopen the schools that should make us, as federal taxpayers, even more reluctant to bail out the states.

    If Trump being reelected means California, Illinois, and New York are forced to cut spending drastically, that’s more than enough reason to vote for President Trump, and if Biden being elected means we’ll see bailouts for California, Illinois, and New York, that’s as good a reason to vote against him as any.

  8. Putting children in masks is child abuse. This all needs to stop.

    1. Has there been a study of children wearing masks all day, everyday? I’d like to see that research before sending my kids to a mask induced school.

  9. Democrats and progressives need a poor, destitute, ignorant and largely uneducated class. Otherwise, who else would vote for them?

    1. Republicans with an unyielding appetite for decorum, above all other considerations.

  10. There was a surge in colleges because college age children (and they are children so long as they act like children) are into alcoholic partying and other close social mingling (raves, etc). Primarily because such children are independent and away from mommy and daddy for the first time ever. Such is not the case for school aged children.

    I would like to see the numbers for other countries without the alcohol prohibition mentality, and without the child smothering culture.

    1. There was also a surge in colleges because they are testing the fuck out of all of the students. But there is no surge in actual serious illness among college students, which suggests this is more about the number of tests than anything. Cases mean nothing at this point. We know that the PCR tests are too sensitive. It can’t tell us much at all about the actual state of active infections. Nor can antibody tests. We need to keep looking at death and hospitalization rates. Cases are a misleading distraction. None of the supposed “surges” happening now are accompanied by the increase in death and serious illness you would expect.

      1. We need to keep looking at death and hospitalization rates. Cases are a misleading distraction. None of the supposed “surges” happening now are accompanied by the increase in death and serious illness you would expect.

        Even that is still ‘in the weeds’ a bit, IMO. I would say we need to look at excess deaths from a 5-10 yrs. retrospective standpoint as well, especially policy-wise. If we trade COVID deaths for Heart Disease, Cancer, and TB deaths 1:1 for 2020 and suicides go up, it’s pretty clear that the lockdown and mask mandates were between useless/saved no lives and costly (in terms of lives).

        Unless people are dropping dead around you at a rate that empirically/anecdotally refutes the “This is fine.” narrative, then the “We can’t wait for the data!” narrative is explicitly histrionics.

    2. And how many of those kids actually got sick?

    3. college age children (and they are children so long as they act like children) are into alcoholic partying and other close social mingling (raves, etc). Primarily because such children are independent and away from mommy and daddy for the first time ever.

      sounds like a manifesto from a mass shooter

  11. Our schools teach White kids that they are immoral and contemptible if they don’t support the White Genocide that is being carried out by massive 3rd world immigration and forced diversity in Every and Only White countries.
    Their teachers never tell them, “White self-hatred is SICK!!!“
    Their teachers claim to be anti-racist. What they are is anti-White.
    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White.
    Anti-White indoctrination is child abuse.

    1. I’m not ‘white’ and I agree. There’s a reason liberalism has worked, working through historic issues…look around the globe. Where is it better for minorities, in any nation ?

  12. This article reminds me that Robby authored one of my top 10 favorite sentences. Unimaginable levels of naivete and autism:

    “Everyone knows that Detroit Public Schools are broken beyond hope because the government can’t run inner city schools.”

    https://reason.com/2016/01/21/detroit-teachers-mass-sick-out-aban/

  13. We must ‘save one life’ no matter how many people it kills or devastates along the way! Are you heartless or something?!?!??!

  14. The government health officials only care about covid cases. They don’t show any concern about mental health, other health issues or economic distress (which can lead to other health issues).

    To them saving a few grandmas with health issues is more important than the health of the rest of the population, including children.

  15. “marginalized kids”

    What does “marginalized” mean in this context? Or even more generally, with respect to a group?

    1. Kids with irresponsible parents

  16. This isn’t an issue about Schools…it’s an issue regarding irresponsible parents !

    Schools can’t make up for drug infested parents. Change their culture.

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