Fed Chair Jay Powell said it best: “The path forward for the economy is extraordinarily uncertain and will depend in large part on our success in containing the virus.”
With major health and economic risks tied directly to school reopenings, maybe the most critical economic decisions being made right now are being made by school board directors.
So, who are these people? School board candidates usually claim they want the best education possible, but their reasons for running can be vastly different. Some are parents who have a direct stake in making sure funding for high-quality education is as high as possible. Some are citizens who want to control the cost of education. Some see the school board as a stepping-stone to higher elective office. And some just want to serve the community.
But they all come equipped with their own personal and political biases. And maybe, most important, few are health professionals, child psychologists or economists. They are being asked to make incredibly complex school reopening decisions for which, through no fault of their own, most are not prepared.
The issues they face are massive. First, there are the health concerns. Here, school boards have generally looked toward the experts. Unfortunately, trusting the experts these days is not in vogue and there are sometimes good reasons to have doubts.
Take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When school reopening guidelines were released, they contained significant safety restrictions. Then the president complained and, suddenly, the CDC determined that it had to review the guidelines. Presto-chango, the requirements became less restrictive. Unfortunately, that raised questions about political interference, diminishing trust in the guidelines.
So, whom should the school boards listen to? How about the local experts, the county health departments?
Good idea? Well, maybe, or maybe not.
Consider the experience of my school district, Council Rock. It held a virtual school board meeting in early July that drew more than 2,200 people and included the Bucks County health director, David Damsker. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2DCRX0xs7c)
Damsker’s recommendations were interesting. No school-based screening or testing would be required. Instead, teachers would screen themselves and parents would screen their children. While indicating that children were generally not at risk, he made no differentiation between those who were aged 5 through 8 versus 15 through 18. Other recommendations included two students to a seat on buses; no required masks for students; three-feet distancing, not six feet; and if a child is sick and sent home, brothers and sisters could remain in school.
But a curious proposal was what he called his “modified quarantine,” whereby those who may have been exposed would not be required to quarantine at home but could stay in school and simply wear a mask. Should a school board trust a local health official who creates his own “modified quarantine” guideline?
Damsker’s comments, which strongly supported in-class school reopenings, affected many school board decisions in central and lower Bucks County. Council Rock’s board has elected to bring students back to their classrooms in late September, albeit without following all of Damsker’s recommendations. A number of other districts, however, reversed their earlier decision to have an in-class reopening, opting instead for virtual learning through the first marking period, which ends around mid-November.
Regardless of what the experts say, school boards also have to consider the views of parents.
It’s not surprising that parents have a range of anxieties. First, there’s the health issue. Not only do they worry about their children getting sick, but they also are anxious about their children bringing the virus home and infecting them or others at risk.
Parents are concerned about the quality of in-school education versus virtual learning. The spring virtual-learning experience did not go well, in no small part because districts were unprepared for the sudden closings. The hodgepodge of approaches and guidelines created challenges for students, teachers, and parents alike. The resulting in-school bias is understandable.
But parental fears go beyond health and education quality. The dilemma parents could face is having to choose between their income and their child’s health.
For some parents, their position on reopening comes down to finances. If a child is home, parents who cannot work from home might have to quit their jobs or pay for child care, which could be expensive or unavailable. Child care for working parents has been an issue for decades, but is now a problem for more than just the working poor.
Consequently, keeping schools closed could potentially reduce the labor supply, lowering household incomes and spending. The resulting slower economic growth is why some are pushing so hard to reopen sooner rather than later.
Finally, school boards must listen to their teachers and school staff, who are among those most at risk but often the least considered. For example, Damsker’s presentation and his department’s guidelines included little about teacher safety.
But the experiences in Israel, South Korea and now in U.S. school districts that have reopened indicate that teachers face real danger. They are the new front-line workers. Understandably, they don’t want to endanger themselves if there are less risky alternatives, such as virtual learning.
Which gets us back to the issues of health and economics. The huge gamble is that reopening schools for classroom learning, which might lessen economic impact, will not add to the already surging number of virus cases and deaths.
However, if reopening classrooms leads to a further resurgence in the virus across the country, the business closings we experienced in early spring may have to be revisited, and that would set back the economy dramatically.
And who are the people being asked to decide how much health and economic risk should be taken? School board directors, who never signed up for that responsibility.