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If Schools Reopen This Fall, More People Will Likely Die. Full Stop.

We are dangerously unready to thrust millions of children into the enclosed close-quarters reality of school.

A child wears a protective face mask and a Spider-Man helmet in Times Square during the coronavirus pandemic on May 27, 2020, in New York City.

Part of the Series

The front page of Tuesday’s Miami Herald tells you all you need to know about the rising dread and panic being felt across the country by millions of parents with school-age children. Bang in the center of that front page is the headline, “Miami-Dade restaurants, gyms closing to fight COVID surge.” Snuggled in to the left-side column is another headline: “Florida schools ordered to reopen in August.”

For those of you bereft of a calendar, August is next month.

Raise your hand if you think this country is anywhere near prepared to allow millions of children to occupy school buildings while the pandemic is surging to levels unseen even in the grim days of March and April. Keep your hand raised if you believe this current and unprecedented infection surge will “disappear” in a month, as Donald Trump so devoutly hopes.

Yeah, me neither. That Herald front page is cognitive dissonance in the raw, and mighty evidence that the United States is careening toward yet another COVID catastrophe, this one involving millions of children.

I am the parent of a soon-to-be public school second grader who, like her peers, lost the latter third of last year’s schooling experience to COVID. I believe closing the schools was an absolutely vital step in effectively controlling the pandemic here in the Northeast, and I concur with epidemiologists who have said such closures should have taken place even earlier, and would have saved lives if they did.

My daughter is a lucky kid: A safe pre-programmed Chromebook was provided by her school for her to use during that blank and scary time, and her teachers labored mightily to create a rich daily syllabus that demonstrably advanced her education despite the circumstances. She has an internet connection at home to make it all work, and my own work-from-home schedule gifted me time to serve as her teacher-by-proxy.

Put plainly, my kid had pretty much the ideal educational experience given the situation, and I will be devoutly grateful to her school until the stars burn out for making that possible. I will likewise be eternally grateful to Truthout for handily and willingly rolling with the schedule changes I needed to make in order to serve my daughter’s needs.

That latter scenario is key: My wife was deemed an essential worker and has had no flexibility in her all-day work schedule throughout the pandemic. Like millions of parents, she was confronted with an impossible juggling act that was only ameliorated by the time I had available to focus on our daughter’s schoolwork. Had I been in the position thrust upon parents like my wife, who had to work during school hours, I would not be singing so cheerful a tune.

There are millions of parents who lack the presence of an in-home parent/teacher because of their work requirements, and will lack that presence if school-at-home is the policy in the coming academic year. A great many kids do not have access to school-provided laptops, and if they do, there is no internet at home. For millions of kids, school has been the one place where they are sure to get a decent meal every day. School all day is the lynchpin for countless lives. All of that collapsed under COVID during the school year, and the pressure to get the schools going again in the fall is understandably extreme.

I also agree with child psychologists who say having students physically in school is vital not only to their educational development, but for their emotional well-being. I can see it in my own kid, who was profoundly affected by those months of isolation. Zoom chats with friends, helpful as they were, could never replace in-person interactions. Her generation will be marked by this experience for the term of their lives.

All this being rightly said, there is absolutely no way this country is presently ready to thrust millions of children back into the enclosed close-quarters reality of school. There is no way to make sure grade-schoolers practice social distancing all day, every day. There is no safe way to bus them to and from school. There is no way to feed them safely. There is absolutely no way to protect the teachers who will be put in grave peril every time they enter their classrooms.

Why? Because our leaders continue to pretend COVID-19 is nothing to worry about, even as the toll blasts through 3 million infections and over 130,000 deaths, even as the South and West reckon with a pandemic nightmare already endured by the Northeast, but with far less medical infrastructure to contend with it.

If there is to be even a prayer of safely restarting schools this autumn, every school district in the country will need massive supplemental funds to do the necessary hourly sterilizing of the facilities, and will need PPE gear for students, teachers, administrators, janitors and basically everyone who gets near the building, not just once, but every single day. Every student, faculty member, administrator and worker in every school everywhere will have to be screened, every single day.

There is at least some funding for this to be found in the HEROES Act that was passed in May by the House of Representatives. Though far from perfect, the bill provides billions of dollars for schools to begin preparing for the incredibly expensive reopening requirements before them.

At present, the HEROES Act lies dormant on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, because providing funds to keep kids and teachers safe apparently is not ideologically sound.

When reopening schools this fall fails — and it will even if McConnell grows a soul and releases the HEROES Act for a vote, because COVID is insidious and will defeat even the best safety measures in any closed, crowded environment — school districts will need to stop on a dime and have a pre-prepared program for home schooling, as well as pick-up meals for students who need them, when the pandemic closes the schools again.

In the meantime, returning children to school too early and without adequate preparation risks increasing the spread of the virus to their families, meaning parents will die, grandparents will die, friends and neighbors will die, teachers and other school workers will die, and they will do so in every school district in the country.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, following her boss’s lead, has washed her hands of creating any sort of federal response to this looming crisis. For her, and for Trump, this is a state and local issue, and by the way, have some cake.

Trump made it abundantly clear on Tuesday where he stands. He intends to bully governors into reopening this fall no matter what. He offers no plan to make this happen, and it seems, primarily wants the schools open because he thinks it will help him win in November.

Indeed the president has signaled that he will see any decision to keep the schools closed as just another dirty liberal trick to defeat him. “We don’t want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons,” he said. “They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way. We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everyone else to open the schools.”

This, from a president whose reelection campaign is based entirely on the hope that “Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day,” according to The Washington Post. That numbness will have to be particularly acute if we spend September and October burying too many parents, grandparents and teachers in early and thoroughly unnecessary graves.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how vital schools are to the stability of the country. Not having children in school has made an already desperate situation worse by orders of magnitude. Not funding those schools to effectively confront this crisis is a failure even beyond the scope of all the other deadly failures we have endured so far.

The situation could be at least partially ameliorated if Congress chose to fund workers who must stay home to teach their children, or if the administration had begun preparing for this eventuality months ago. There are ways it can be done, even as the school experience itself will have to absorb some radical changes.

None of this has happened, and will not happen soon, even as we careen toward a dangerous reckoning with the school bell next month. There are solutions, but under the leadership of Trump and McConnell, there is only noise and death.

As matters stand, and unless something astonishing happens, we must face the fact that reopening the schools at this juncture could be a calamity of national proportions. This places millions of people in a disastrous situation, but the dangers that lie on the far side of reopening now are worse.

Reopening too soon is eating the South and West alive at this very moment. If schools open next month under the current circumstances, I fear we may start painting corner after corner of the entire country “infected” red.

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