What’s at stake in the fight over reopening schools? That such a question, phrased in such a way, needs to be asked at all is indicative of how poorly we’ve tended to public education since the beginning of the pandemic one year ago. Millions of students across the country have lost some amount of in-person learning. Millions still haven’t returned to the physical classroom at all, getting by—if that can be said—via remote schooling, which everyone agrees is no substitute for the real thing. Not only does learning suffer; children’s emotional health also deteriorates the longer they’re away from teachers and peers. Students of color and those who live in poverty fare worse than other students. Children who rely on schools for food and, in some cases, as havens from abusive environments, face still greater precarity. The socioeconomic consequences of a lost year (or more) of schooling are frightening to contemplate and could linger for generations.
What people disagree on is how to get back to something close to normal, soon, while minimizing the chances of anyone getting sick and dying from COVID-19 as a result. Frustrated parents and critics of organized labor are angry at teachers’ unions for seeking guarantees on safety before in-class learning resumes. Teachers criticize government officials for delays in vaccinations and for demanding they return to work in poorly ventilated buildings. Big-city systems with poorer students and aging infrastructure are unfairly compared with private and religious schools. Republicans in Washington, suddenly interested in the well-being of the nation’s schoolchildren, criticize the Biden administration for moving too slowly. White parents are far more likely to support the immediate resumption of in-person instruction, while the majority of Black and Latino parents, aware that COVID-19 has been especially dangerous to people of color, want remote-only learning to continue.