America’s schoolchildren and teachers have just gotten some very good news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After reviewing data from multiple studies in the U.S. and abroad, the agency has concluded that in-person schooling poses very little risk of coronavirus transmission as long as basic safety precautions are followed. That should send a clear message to governors, mayors and teachers’ union leaders: It’s time to open the schools.
In addition to the terrible toll covid-19 has taken on the nation’s health, it’s been a calamity for American education. Only about 15% of school districts offered full-time in-person classes last fall. For students and parents elsewhere, the pandemic has meant navigating novel and often dubious remote-learning software. Any parent of a young child can attest that virtual instruction typically falls somewhere between subpar and hopeless.
The results have been alarming but not surprising. Early research suggests sharply reduced learning gains; widening racial disparities in achievement; and an eruption of anxiety, loneliness, depression and other mental-health afflictions among students isolated from their peers and stuck at home. Some districts have seen a rash of suicides. Education analysts warn that the long-term consequences – for disadvantaged kids, for racial equity, even for America’s global competitiveness – could be disastrous.
In short, getting kids back into classrooms should be a national priority. More local leaders are recognizing that, but in some cases, districts have tried to reopen, only to be stymied by unions. In Chicago – which has one of the country’s largest school systems, and where more than 75% of students are economically disadvantaged – the union has simply defied the city’s reopening plans. In Montclair, New Jersey, the local union is blocking even two-day-a-week instruction. In Fairfax County, Virginia, the union got teachers moved to the front of the line for vaccines – and then decided that in-class instruction shouldn’t resume until vaccinations were ready for students. No vaccines are currently authorized for those under age 16.
Educators are understandably hesitant to return to work, and exceptions should be made for those in high-risk populations. But for the vast majority, the moment has come to return – and many are eager to do so.
To help more districts reopen, President Joe Biden should reassure union leaders that he takes teacher safety seriously. But he also needs to apply some pressure to states and cities. Funding from previous relief bills – more than $67 billion, all told – has helped schools to pay for testing, protective gear, improved ventilation, added staff and more. Biden is offering an additional $130 billion, and has rightly pledged sweeping federal support for schools that need it. But he should be clear that this is a two-way street. The government will do everything it can to ensure classrooms are safe; in return, school districts must prioritize getting kids back at their desks.
Biden should also be willing to use the bully pulpit. His public support for reopening without delay can help give state and local officials, particularly his fellow Democrats, the kind of political capital they need to overcome opposition – and to then go further, by extending the school year into the summer and thinking more creatively about how to make up for lost time. He should urge labor leaders publicly and privately to get on board as well. His statement on Monday about the Chicago dispute – “The teachers I know, they want to work” – hit the right note. If such efforts fail, he should consider working with Congress to condition future aid on whether districts in low-risk areas are willing to open their doors.
The pandemic has demanded sacrifices from everyone. Hospital employees and first responders, who work in environments that are far more dangerous than classrooms (and who are also often represented by unions), as well as transportation workers and other public employees, have steadfastly done their jobs throughout this crisis, honoring their responsibility to their communities – and making the nation proud. Children – and all of America – need teachers to join them.
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Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and served as mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013. For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion