The decision on how and when to reopen schools was hard enough before President Trump this week injected politics into the issue.
Staying in character with another simplistic, bombastic declaration that ignores the nuances of the coronavirus, he tweeted Monday that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL.”
Nevermind that COVID-19 cases continue to surge at alarming levels across the country, including here in California, and many hospitals are nearing capacity while Trump does nothing to slow the spread.
He ramped up the pressure Wednesday by threatening to withhold federal funding from schools that do not resume in-person classes this fall, which is absurd for many and puts the lives of students, teachers and staff on the line for political reasons. Trump instead should pressure Congress to provide additional funding needed to make schools safer to reopen.
The president also attacked the Centers for Disease Control’s reasonable guidelines for reopening schools, calling its emphasis on safety, social distancing and remote learning too expensive and impractical. The CDC lost whatever respect it still had by caving and announcing it would issue less-restrictive orders next week.
Fortunately, Trump doesn’t make the final call on reopening schools. That decision is immensely complex and should be made by health and school officials based on science, not politics. Clearly, the surge in Bay Area cases must be slowed considerably before local schools reopen their doors.
The challenge will be balancing the value of reopening schools with the need for safety. Our children are already suffering academically and emotionally from being kept out of the classroom. We all want to see them return to school, where they learn better from in-person instruction. Moreover, the economy cannot fully recover until parents have the ability to focus on work during school hours.
But reopening schools must be done prudently.
Alameda County, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County education officials already have published reasonable protocols for schools to reopen. Alameda County’s are the toughest, requiring students to wear masks and establishing physical-distancing goals. Contra Costa County officials should follow their lead. They instead put forward a road map for individual districts to establish their own set of guidelines, an approach that could result in confusion for students and parents.
Health and school officials must consider a wide range of issues, including:
— Age of the students. Elementary students are less likely to contract and spread COVID-19 than high school students. And elementary students can more easily be contained in a single classroom with a single teacher.
— Design and availability of classrooms. Schools need extra space for appropriate physical distancing for students, teachers and staff. Newer, up-to-date schools have better ventilation, which reduces the risk of infection.
— School district finances. Schools need additional revenues to clean facilities, revamp classrooms, purchase protective equipment, conduct testing and implement safety protocols.
— Equal opportunities for students. Some schools will inevitably be forced to conduct full-time or part-time remote learning. But poorer families don’t have equal access to computers or the internet.
Trump noted in one of his tweets this week that countries such as Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have reopened their schools with “no problems.” He failed to mention that, with the exception of Sweden, they first established national strategies to sharply reduce the number of COVID-19 cases and then mandated strict national protocols for schools.
Denmark, for example, has implemented hourly hand-washing and established enough classroom space to limit children to small groups of no more than 12 children, creating a virtual cocoon with no crossover with others. It is also conducting classes outside and in parks, whenever possible.
California and the Bay Area have learned the hard way that dealing with the coronavirus threat requires patience and careful planning. Trump lacks both skills. The decision on when and how to prudently reopen local schools should be left in the hands of health and school officials.
©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)