As he tends to do, President Donald Trump on Monday injected an arbitrary and potentially dangerous proposition into the fight against the coronavirus. In a conference call with governors, he made the baffling suggestion to reopen schools before summer, reasoning that “young children have done very well in this disaster.”
A few problems: One, as more information becomes available about this pandemic, it’s clear that the young aren’t as safe as once thought. Two, even kids who aren’t stricken can carry the virus asymptomatically, bringing it home to parents and grandparents. And, three, the school year is almost over. What, exactly, is the advantage in taking even a moderate risk of reopening now, only to have classes end in a few weeks?
Few would argue that this year’s experience in online schooling by millions of families has been a positive one. Performance standards have gone out the window. Shuttering schools was a drastic but necessary step in the battle to contain a virus that thrives on close-contact settings. Trying to continue some semblance of school for the kids over the internet was a better-than-nothing proposition that inarguably deprived students of the more effective classroom learning they need, while putting working parents in a child care bind. It was something that should never happen unless the alternative is, literally, death. Which it was.
In some regions where infections are declining, it might be theoretically safe to resume classes now under strict distancing guidelines. But most school calendars are in their final weeks, and remaining class time would be even less valuable than usual with schools trying to ease back into a new, pandemic-conscious routine, before sending the kids home again a few weeks later. What would be the point?
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has had a habit of setting arbitrary timelines without regard to medical data or even common sense — his unrealistic goal of reopening society by Easter Sunday, for example. His medical advice often comes down to, “What do you have to lose?” as he put it while promoting what has turned out to be a dangerous unproven coronavirus treatment. These unhelpful instincts were on full display Monday, when he suggested, incredibly, that reopening schools was “not a big subject” because the virus kills mostly older victims.
In fact, school reopening is among the biggest of subjects, both medically and economically. Thankfully, most states, including Missouri and Illinois, have already decided that in-person classes won’t resume this academic year. That gives officials time to consider how to best implement safety measures when kids return in the fall.
When and how to reopen the schools is going to be one of the most delicate and challenging issues going forward. They are decisions that should be based on the advice of the nation’s leading experts, not random, uninformed presidential pronouncements.