By Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
“Common sense and intelligence can still determine what we do, even in this crazy environment. We’re not going to use our children as guinea pigs.” – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Of the many questions the deadly coronavirus pandemic has forced the nation to confront, the question of whether to reopen schools is one of the toughest.
Experts agree that the shutdown is widening the racial achievement gap. Black parents are far more likely to work in jobs that can’t be done from home, so they’re less available to supervise at-home learning. More than a third of low-income households with school-age children don’t have high-speed internet access, compared to just 6 percent of affluent households. One in four teenagers in a low-income household doesn’t have access to a computer.
Getting students safely back in school should be a top priority. But the Trump administration keeps ignoring the “safely” part.
It’s true that children seem less susceptible to infection, but scientists aren’t sure why. Children under 19 represent 22 percent of the population, but only 5 percent of coronavirus cases. And 90 percent of children who contracted the virus experienced mild or non-existent symptoms. But children with underlying conditions such as diabetes, congenital heart disease, seizures and obesity are at higher risk for serious symptoms. And far too little is known about a rare but serious complication of the virus known as multi-symptom inflammatory disease, or the role children might play in spreading the virus to adults.
Rather than devise a comprehensive plan to deal with the risks, the Trump administration wants to ignore them. The Centers for Disease Control has issued guidelines for schools, but both President Trump and Vice President Pence have urged school districts not to follow them and have even pressured the CDC to change them.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, an influential committee of scientists and educators, this week issued a report that stressed the urgency for younger children to attend school in person. But the committee recommended safety guidelines even more stringent than the CDC’s. Experts went further than guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling for surgical masks to be worn by all teachers and staff members during school hours, and for cloth face coverings to be worn by all students, including those in elementary school.
According to an alarming report by the Washington Post, “White House officials hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day.”
Simply put: we will not.
President Trump himself has pointed toward the experiences of countries like Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, where reopened schools have not led to major outbreaks. But the virus is under far better control in Europe than it is in the United States. The U.S. has set new records for daily infections seven times in the span of 11 days. In the past two weeks, more than 692,000 new cases were reported in the U.S. The European Union, with a third more residents, reported about one-twelfth as many cases.
We desperately need to send children back to school. And we desperately need to reopen our economy. But we can’t do either until we bring the virus under control.