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The Folly of School Openings as a Zero-Sum Game

We need to address the needs of students—and parents, and teachers. One size does not fit all, and race complicates the challenge.

Students at the Mt. Greenwood Elementary School in Chicago depart after a full day of classes, January 10, 2022, during the coronavirus pandemic., Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

The omicron COVID-19 surge and its record number of infections and pediatric hospitalizations has reignited the debate over in-person schooling. A drumbeat of national commentary insists we should keep children in school at all costs, as if it were a zero-sum game.

The New York Times’ David Leonhardt says school closures result in “more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults.” Bloomberg columnist Michael Strain claims that remote learning is such a “massive failure” and so costly to the economy that “even if counts of new omicron cases break pandemic records, students should remain in classrooms.” Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor controversial throughout the pandemic for her use of school data to push in-person schooling, has said virtual learning results in such “toxic stress” that students should be in school even though “there will be in some in-school transmission, no matter how careful we are.”

As a physician and epidemiologist advising several community and education groups throughout the pandemic, I have heard many variations of these arguments. I have been troubled by them for several reasons.

One is the either/or, win-lose framing of the issue. It is as if children are all on one side of the scale and adults are all on the other. Or as if academic success and socialization are all on one side of the scale and risk of infection is all on the other. Or as if public health was all on one side of the scale and the economy was all on the other. Or as if remote learning is a disaster and in-person schooling is salvation.

Instead of sophisticated thinking that starts with the fact that everyone is suffering, the current zero-sum paradigm plays up the suffering of children while the needs of adult parents, workers, and teachers are not a factor to consider. Ageism scholar Margaret Gullette posits that a major reason for the nation’s slow initial response to COVID-19 was because it was “only” older people who were dying at first in nursing homes. In the first half-year of the pandemic, 80 percent of COVID deaths were among people at least 65 years old.

Though older people are now highly vaccinated, notable “breakthrough” COVID deaths have struck many elderly, such as the late military chief and secretary of state Colin Powell. Gullette contends that ageism, the last acceptable prejudice, occurs far earlier than age 65. That is certainly evident as teachers from their twenties to their sixties are up in arms in many cities about being pressured to go into densely packed, poorly ventilated classrooms without adequate safety protocols. Many of them have children and parents back home they do not want to infect. Yet former New York City mayor and media magnate Michael Bloomberg has said schools must be open “five days a week, no exceptions [my emphasis].”

Either/or thinking is also a hallmark of white supremacy culture, which maintains the status quo of those already privileged. It is curious to me that Leonhardt, Strain, Oster, and Bloomberg, none of whom are known as racial justice leaders, all now cite the disproportionate academic and social suffering of Black and Latino or low-income children as top reasons for in-person schooling, despite such disparities having been present historically. Nowhere in their arguments do they cite voices of color sharing their viewpoint. Also not evident are the voices of older people and those at high risk of exposure in their jobs.

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Similarly, in many local advisory sessions, I have heard white parents and board members frequently cite the suffering of Black and Latino children, even though Black and Latino parents have consistently been the most reluctant to send their children back to in-person learning during the pandemic. The reasons for the reluctance are so obvious and complicated as to cast a caustic eye on the agenda of those who would force them back into classrooms.

As an academic myself, I of course believe that keeping schools open is a priority, far more important than keeping bars, restaurants, and sports venues open. But nowhere in the arguments by white advocates of in-person schooling are respectful acknowledgments of the legitimate fears held by parents of color as to how COVID-19 can devastate their lives.

None of them are transparent in noting how white parents feel safer to send their children to school because the consequences of infections are mitigated by better baseline health and less multigenerational family structures. None of them note that educated white parents feel safer because they themselves are at less risk of infection as they are more likely to be able to work from home than the average Black or Latino worker.

White parents do not fear loss of their children or the specter of orphanhood for their children as do parents and grandparents of color. For all the talk about children being able to generally weather the virus, Black and Indigenous children are respectively 3.5 times and 2.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white children.

In a study published last month in the journal Pediatrics, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black, Latino, and Asian children are twice as likely as white children to live with a grandparent, who often serves as a caregiver. While the population of the U.S. is 39 percent of color, 65 percent of children losing primary caregivers to COVID-19 were of color. Black and Latino children were twice as likely to lose a parent or caregiver to COVID than a white child, and Indigenous children were four and a half times more likely than a white child to lose a parent or caregiver.

Many parents of color are also reluctant because, in this moment of racial reckoning, the awareness is greater than ever that in-person schooling itself is chronically infected with inferiority. As a Washington Post piece reported, Black, Latino, and Asian homeschooling increased among parents concerned about poor self-esteem from incessant Eurocentric historical narratives and disproportionate discipline stemming from teachers and principals framing Black and Latino children as more violent.

But instead of wrestling with this well-founded reluctance, some white elites paternalistically say families of color need to be convinced to send their children back to school. They all but say they know what is better for Black and Latino children than the parents of those children. To be sure, they are joined in that parental disrespect by some Black mayors, such as Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, and New York City’s Eric Adams, who recently said, “For poor, Black, brown children that don’t have access to some of the basic things, school is the best place for you.”

Either/or thinking does not allow for the possibility of both/and thinking. Without a doubt, many Black, Latino, and poor children suffered disproportionately with online learning. And yet, when you add up all the risk factors, many families of color see online learning as the best of bad options. That is reflected in the stance of the Alliance for Quality Education in New York state, whose mission is to end “systemic racism and economic oppression” in the state’s public schools. Last week, as Adams pressed for in-person classes, the organization said in a press release, “There is no one-size-fits-all solution to learning during COVID … We want parents and students to decide for themselves the best option to keep their family safe. With case numbers rising, we must not push for only one option at the expense of students’ safety and the safety of their families. It is well past time for a remote option to be made available to families who understandably do not feel comfortable sending their children to school during a pandemic.”

Amid the widespread condemnation of remote learning, The Christian Science Monitor last year did a thoughtful piece on school districts around the nation that found remote learning to have intriguing benefits. They include denting into the digital divide as every student had to have a device, increasing the availability of tutoring and mental-health check-ins, reducing academic losses from in-school suspensions, and flexibility in parent-teacher conferences for parents with difficult job schedules. In short, when utilized effectively, remote learning can be a component of getting away from cookie-cutter education. As Lincoln, Nebraska, public schools superintendent Steve Joel told the Monitor: “I think we’ve learned how to more individualize and differentiate instruction. I think we’ve always been good at that, but I think we became a lot better at it.”

In general, when I hear white influencers call for in-person schooling with no other options, I hear less a genuine concern about the well-being of Black and brown children than a thinly veiled agenda for white families to get their children back to the academics and extracurricular activities that pad their college applications, or for elite white parents to continue their careers unencumbered.

I hear echoes of when white Southern and heartland governors kept their economies “open” in the spring of 2020 on the backs of service workers and meatpackers who were disproportionately of color. I hear a society that was slow to deal with the devastation that swept through the community of older adults still grasping for solutions that continue to declare major groups of people as expendable. None of the factors that make particular populations vulnerable to worse outcomes from COVID infections have gone away, from age to health disparities to environmental injustice.

What I hear is a movement that hears only what it wants to hear to maintain its privileges of whiteness and class, while families of color, older adults, and school employees continue to deal with the worst effects of COVID in relative silence. This either/or, zero-sum game is a folly. The economy cannot thrive if people are too sick to participate. Children cannot thrive if the adults around them are suffering. Whatever solutions society comes up with, it has to involve everyone being at the table able to share their priorities, not one side unilaterally stating what is safe and most important.


Michelle D. Holmes is an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard University.

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