Let’s Talk about the Schools

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March 12, 2020 3:30 p.m.
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Let me mention an important public debate unfolding across the country: school closings. I know this debate in New York City because I’m a resident and I have children in the public schools. We have a particular issue here because we have active spread in the city and a nearby suburb (New Rochelle) is one of the biggest hotspots around the country. Still, the basic question applies in most parts and perhaps every part of the country. I’ve gradually and very reluctantly come to the conclusion that the city government and Board of Education are making a mistake in how they’re approaching the issue.

Let me try to explain carefully why I think that’s the case. And let me be clear that I’m speaking as a resident and a parent and applying my journalistic skills but in no way an expert in public health or medicine.

First of all there are extremely good reasons why public authorities are resisting closing schools. The most obvious is simply disrupting kids’ educations. In a city like New York there is a substantial population of students who rely on the schools for meals and other social services. Particularly for younger children numerous parents have no way to cope with school closures other than not going to work when they cannot afford even very short periods not making an income. Besides the individual impact, this has immediate and intense knock on effects through the economy when big chunks of the workforce are removed from the economy. Then there is the fact that many health care workers have young children. New York and any locality now is desperately in need of all health care workers being on the job.

One final point that is a key issue now in New York City is that many children don’t have the resources (computers and internet connectivity) to do remote learning, even if you deal with all those other issues.

Across the board the most acute impacts are on the working class, the poor and the most marginalized. The reasons for not closing the schools are immense. But we are in the midst of a global epidemic with immense potential for loss of life.

Let me make one thing clear. I’m not worried about my children in this or really anyone else’s children, other than children with chronic illnesses who have particular vulnerabilities. Kids themselves seem to face very little threat from this. But they are vectors of contagion. That seems pretty clear at this point (there’s a lot of science now that kids do get infected they just suffer mild versions of the disease). I say this because I don’t think I’m being overly driven by any parents normal concern about their children’s welfare. I’m worried about the impact on the whole city. And this applies the same for every other part of the country. It’s not really the kids. It’s who they infect.

Back on March 6th, the Times published an article by Howard Markel, one of the authors of that study I drew your attention to on Sunday. This is the one that looks at the relationship between rapid social distancing, non-pharmaceutical interventions and death tolls during the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919.

Markel is clear: closing schools and doing it early was a critical determinant of reducing death tolls from the flu. Here’s a key quote: “School closing turned out to be one of the most effective firewalls against the spread of the pandemic; cities that acted fast, for lengthy periods, and included school closing and at least one other NPI in their responses saw the lowest death rates.”

I cannot imagine the pressure and agonizing the relevant municipal and state authorities are dealing with on these questions. But in New York state, both from the Mayor and even more from within the Department of Education, messaging about the great social costs of school closures have slowly morphed into something more like, the schools can’t be closed. I suspect some of this is simply trying to tamp down what most be intense questioning and pressure from parents. (I’ve picked up some hints that contingency planning for remote learning may be further along than they let on.) But I sense that the leaders of the school system and a lot of the city government have internalized it as a reality. And let’s be clear. They know the cost side better than anyone. They know the kids who won’t get meals; city employees and private sector employees that won’t be able to go to work; young kids who will be left at home alone.

But at a certain point when you decide one part of the equation is a fixed point (the schools can’t be closed), all the reasoning descends from that point. And that’s where I think we are. I am certainly not the person who you should ask about whether the schools should close in New York City or in your home town. Even in my own personal opinion, just as a person and parent living in this city, it’s not clear to me that they should. Indeed, there are possible paths forward that mix the two: moving to distance learning for kids who can do it and in person teaching for those who cannot. This would have the really bad effect of filtering the schools significantly on class lines. But even reducing the density of schools would have a big effect on reducing disease spread. With all this, though, having watched the city government closely, both as a journalist and a resident, I increasingly think they are approaching the question in the wrong way: focusing on the immense costs of a shutdown as that fixed point and not focusing nearly enough on schools as key vectors of disease spread. These have to be balanced. I’m not sure they are to an adequate degree.

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.

COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).

IHME Projections Site (COVID-19 epidemic model which has become the canonical model for many states and hospitals.)

Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).

Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).

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