Reopening schools: Finding the way forward

Thinking of education as an obligation America owes its young people makes clearer what must be done during these trying times.

A teacher in protective gear teaches her students seated at partitioned desks near Bangkok, Thailand, July 1, 2020.

When Finland and Denmark became two of the first countries to reopen their schools amid the pandemic earlier this year, they were motivated by equality. Both countries enshrine education as a constitutional right. 

The Danish Ministry of Children and Education noted that during the shift to online learning “schools and municipalities cannot guarantee that children receive the education in all subjects for which they are entitled.” 

Viewed that way, controlling COVID-19 was not just a matter of public health or economic recovery. It was also a legal requirement. The pandemic was preventing these governments from fulfilling their constitutional obligations to their youngest citizens. 

As public officials and educators assess whether and how to reopen schools in the United States, thinking of education as a right due all children provides a principled and compassionate basis for working through the challenges of starting the academic year at a time when new cases are surging upward. 

Little consensus exists among public officials, educators, and parents on whether schools should reopen or remain only online. President Donald Trump is pushing for a full return to classroom-based learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued recommendations for phased reopenings. 

Measures like these have worked in countries where the number of cases has declined. But many U.S. teachers are concerned that their safety cannot be ensured. Requests for leaves of absence and early retirements are up in school districts across the country. 

The Los Angeles teachers union, the country’s second largest, has demanded that online classes continue in the fall. Their concerns reflect a riddle that the medical community has not yet cracked: why adults are apparently so much more susceptible than young children. 

Primary and secondary schools in countries such as Australia and Singapore have had no outbreaks since reopening. But a high school in Jerusalem was forced to shut down again after a spike in new cases. 

Administrators say they are under pressure from those who want their children back in school, believing it is a better learning environment than at home, and that ongoing efforts to juggle children's needs and working from home are unsustainable. But a Politico/Morning Consult poll last month found that 54% of American voters are somewhat or very concerned about reopening K-12 classrooms. Among Black respondents, the survey found that 73% were somewhat or very concerned, reflecting the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority communities.

The U.S. is one of the few countries that does not regard education as an explicit right. Its Constitution is silent on the issue. The result is a patchwork of disparate provisions and uneven funding among the states. In a landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, however, the Supreme Court found that segregated schools were inherently unequal and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

The pandemic’s disruption of education makes the spirit of that decision freshly relevant. Treating the crisis as an impediment to every child’s right to education, as Finland and Denmark have, could help depoliticize state and federal strategies to contain it. 

The next step is ensuring that every school district has adequate resources to support students for as long as it takes to return to classrooms. 

Congress is already debating whether to fund such measures. Doing so would affirm that education, even if not enshrined in the Constitution, is a national imperative.

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