This Time, We Really Should Think of the Children

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


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.