I imagined a city-wide swirl of thoughts and emotions when every teacher in Philly got the news that all schools would be shutting down for at least two weeks. There was, of course, trepidation — two weeks off means coming back with a whole lot of rust, and kids who are out of practice.
Admittedly, I was on the fence about a closure. But then I remembered something: thousands of Philadelphia’s kids live with their grandparents or great aunts and uncles, or other older extended family members. According to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, an estimated 13,400 Philadelphia children lived with grandmom or poppy in 2017. Grandparents and older relatives make up a vital part of all school communities in Philadelphia. What’s more: those grandparents are often juggling work, caring for children, and the simple realities of aging, which, in Philly, as in all places in the United States, is difficult by design. Compared to most wealthy, first-world countries, the U.S. is terrible at offering healthcare and social support to its seniors.
If kids had stayed in school this week, it could have gotten a lot harder. Two key facts we keep hearing about coronavirus: First, it doesn’t have as much of an effect on children, who are often symptomless or show milder signs of illness, like a cold. The second is that the disease has a brutal effect on senior citizens. According to a February report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control, COVID-19 has a death rate of 3.6% for those 60-69 years old, 8% for those 70-79 years old, and at least 14.8% for those 80 years or older.
These numbers are from mid-February and from China, which appears to be suffering fewer fatalities than some western nations. America, a country with an undeniably draconian and mercantile healthcare system, could well see an increased death rate.
Leaving schools open in Philadelphia would have resulted, almost surely, in dramatically furthering the disaster at hand. Philadelphia, a city with an uninsured rate of almost 20 percent, could not possibly have handled the result of an outbreak that stems from one of our schools. The community implications would be staggering: grandparents and elderly caregivers would die, or, in the best case scenario, be remanded to the hospital for a long recovery period, leaving an untold number of Philly’s kids without care or supervision.
The failure of our federal system to prepare for and respond to this pandemic is so galling as to be almost unbelievable.That means it’s up to local institutions to do the right thing. Loads of Philly schools, charter and public, were planning for closures ahead of Governor Wolf’s pronouncement that all schools be closed. Some schools in the U.S. have already announced that they will be closed for the rest of the year.
We need to be critical and interrogative of the political and social institutions that have, in the past, failed grandly and on spectacular scale — especially as the crisis worsens and seniors are put at even greater risk.
But Philadelphia’s educational leadership stood up and, likely, saved the lives of many caregivers, and that deserves kudos. While it remains to be seen if they will choose expediency over safety and return students to classes before the disease has run its course, they have not failed their first great challenge. That’s an excellent start.
Almost makes it feel like we can take anything, right?