Attacks on teachers unions are everywhere in the news—even as, again, a plurality of parents don’t want their kids inside of classrooms either. The policymakers and the outside-the-classroom experts can’t agree on what’s right, but Republican politicians and many media elites think they can say with confidence that the people who don’t have good ideas are the teachers struggling with remote or hybrid or an unholy combination of teaching methods.
Yet here are just a few of the competing factors in policy discussions of in-person schooling: Opening schools in person and safely is a priority for President Biden—for many of the right reasons—but he doesn’t actually have the authority to make that happen. It’s a patchwork of state and local decision-making.
A majority of voters say schools shouldn’t reopen in person until teachers have been vaccinated, but in many states teachers are not yet eligible for vaccination, and that’s another area where Biden has very limited ability to speed the process. Conveniently, the Biden administration doesn’t think it’s necessary to vaccinate teachers before opening schools in person.
In San Francisco, the city sued the school district to force it to reopen in person, without first moving forward on vaccinating teachers. Teachers are now starting to get vaccinated there, but that wasn’t the first plan. The first plan was brute force. The vaccinations weren’t available, teachers were told, as if it was an immutable fact, not a question of priorities. (Grocery workers are similarly low on the priority list. These are decisions people are making and passing down to the workers forced to live them.)
Moving on from the vaccination question, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released school guidelines earlier in the month, with an eye to making in-person education safe. But at the time, 90% of school districts had COVID-19 levels that were, according to those very same guidelines, unsafe for middle or high schools to be open in person, unless every other mitigation practice was in place. Which they were not in most places. With falling virus rates, more school districts have moved into the safer ranges—as of February 18, a mere 75% of school districts were in unsafe territory.
Some public health experts say that the guidance about community COVID-19 levels and middle and high school reopenings is too strict. But, again, parents and teachers don’t necessarily agree. And anyone who is talking about what should be true in a perfect world must engage with the world we live in, in which many schools are desperately underfunded and many state and local governments have effectively no public health restrictions in place. Few of these experts do so. They are, after all, public health experts, not experts at what U.S. schools actually look like.
Add to this the fact that the CDC’s own school guidelines are virtually silent on what most experts say is one of the key factors in preventing the spread of the coronavirus: ventilation. “C.D.C. gives lip service to ventilation in its report, and you have to search to find it,” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health building safety expert Joseph Allen told The New York Times. The CDC devotes just a paragraph to that, calling on schools to “Improve ventilation to the extent possible such as by opening windows and doors to increase circulation of outdoor air to increase the delivery of clean air and dilute potential contaminants.”
This advice came at a time when much of the country was really quite cold, which makes “just open a window if you can” wildly inadequate advice for a virus that spreads through the air. It’s also deeply problematic since, in the economically unequal United States of America, the schools with the worst ventilation are likely to be the schools serving low-income students and Black and brown students—kids already coming from communities hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s what ventilation plans looked like in Philadelphia as of a few weeks ago:
Philadelphia ultimately moved to offer school staff vaccinations. But the CDC’s inattention to ventilation is consistent: the agency is also more generally dragging its feet on air standards for workplaces, with potentially huge effects on workers in many industries if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration follows the CDC’s lead and ignores the science on ventilation and COVID-19.
Meanwhile, consider these anecdotes from schools:
This is the thing: What policymakers and public health experts are saying about what schools should look like and what schools actually look like are often a world apart. We have to engage with reality. The majority of voters who say teachers should be vaccinated before going into schools tells us something about what people are seeing in their communities. The teachers who are fighting to stay remote—despite remote education being miserable for them as well as for students—and who are pushing their unions to back them in that fight are telling us something about what really goes on in their schools, not just right now but at all times.
The coronavirus pandemic has showed us again and again how underfunded schools are, how poorly maintained many of the buildings are, how short of supplies even schools in relatively wealthy districts can be. This is an alarm bell to listen to not just during the pandemic but for the future. Schools should always have adequate ventilation. Windows should be able to open. Bathrooms should have soap and hot water. The sheer messiness of the discussion about opening in person now is because public education has been so badly neglected for so long, and teachers have been so vilified, their professionalism so disregarded. That’s a conversation we need to keep having. The forces of privatization are taking COVID-19 school closures as a chance to attack public education, but the reverse should be true: The pandemic is showing us what needs to be fixed. We should come out of this determined to do so.