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Chutzpah and the Push for In-Person Instruction

The definition of chutzpah, according to the old joke, is the kid who kills his parents and then asks the judge for mercy because he’s an orphan. President Trump has added a twist on the joke: the kid who kills his parents and then complains that they don’t drive him to school.

When the European Union was hit early and hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, its member countries took the necessary steps to drive down their infection numbers. Through the now commonly understood mitigation steps such as social distancing, masks, and testing plus isolation, once-devastated countries like Italy, Spain, France, Ireland and Belgium now regularly report daily deaths in the single digits. In contrast, the death rates in the US have doggedly remained around 500 per day, with infection rates again climbing upward. While EU countries urgently buckled down, our corresponding urgency was to reopen bars, tattoo parlors, and hair salons. And we bizarrely managed to turn mask-refusal into a political statement. That difference between the EU and the US is one reason why they can now take cautious steps to return to normal-ish life while we drunkenly stagger toward an uncertain future.

President Trump can’t be exclusively blamed for all of the US failures, but his policies, public statements, and actions set us apart from countries that responded with greater urgency and wisdom. Now he’s threatening to cut off federal funding to schools if they don’t return to in-person instruction this fall. His framing is overtly political: “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” he tweeted on Wednesday morning.

Interestingly, the timing of this tweet corresponded with the publication of a front-page article in Wednesday’s New York Times about how Sweden’s decision to not impose social distancing has been a misadventure, costing thousands of lives and doing little to sustain the economy. The other three countries name-checked in the Trump tweet are similarly instructive. Denmark and Norway responded strongly even before the virus attacked there; the two countries together account for fewer than 900 deaths total, and the current infection rates are negligible. Germany was hit hard around April, with some days recording 300 or more deaths, but its serious response quickly lowered the spread of the disease. The current daily death rate across Germany is in the single digits.

So, yes, these countries and others are now able to open their schools. But they first laid the groundwork. Ideally, we can do so as well. Any political considerations – for or against the election of a given presidential candidate – should be irrelevant. As the President’s tweet correctly pointed out, reopening schools (in person) is important for children and families. Moreover, infection, disease and transmission risks are lower for the children and youth who would be attending K-12 schools. For this reason, as well as the importance of education, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for schools to reopen if possible. This is, quite reasonably, a risk analysis – one that takes into account benefits as well as costs of in-person schooling at this time. Last spring’s experience illustrated the many important roles played by our public schools and the urgent need for in-person schooling. (Although, ironically, both President Trump and Secretary DeVos have questioned the value of education provided in public schools.) Recently in the Answer Sheet, Carol Burris made a compelling case for re-opening, as did Emily Oster in the Atlantic.

Yet no compelling case of societal benefits will suffice if children, parents, teachers and other school staff feel that school attendance is not worth the personal risk. Because of such concerns, substantially more parents are looking at homeschooling for the fall. For-profit online schooling companies (which, along with other software companies, have been marketing aggressively) are also apparently experiencing a boost – notwithstanding extraordinarily poor outcomes. We can expect that many teachers will similarly weigh their personal risks and, particularly in cases of older teachers or those with other risk factors or who are more financially secure, opt against teaching before it is safer to return.

President Trump himself can make in-person reopening more likely and more successful. Most obviously, he can urge all people in the U.S. to wear a mask when in public – and he can set the example by doing so himself. Legislatively, he can work with his allies in Congress to provide the $200 billion in federal stimulus funding needed to cover estimated shortfalls in state and local funding for P-12 education over the next two years. The nation’s public schools are facing major funding cutbacks at a time when the President and the rest of us are asking them to do much more – in terms of addressing greater student needs and in terms of virus mitigation and social distancing.

In short, the chutzpah of the President’s current push for in-person schooling in the fall is that he, more than anyone else, has created the conditions that make such reopening so difficult and risky – and he, more than anyone else, has it in his power to ease that difficulty and that risk.

Kevin G. Welner

Professor Kevin Welner teaches educational policy and law at the CU Boulder School of Education. He’s also the director of the National Education Policy Center, w...