Closed Schools Are a National Emergency — Where Is the Audacity?

Supporters of the Cherokee County School District’s decision to reopen schools outside the district’s headquarters in Canton, Ga., August 11, 2020. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

Closed schools are a national emergency that will damage an entire generation of children. Many districts seem to be defaulting to a plan of waiting for a vaccine before reopening schools. This represents a tragic lack of urgency and creative thinking.

Where is the audacity? Restaurants can figure out outdoor dining. Why can’t schools manage outdoor learning? In my latest Bloomberg column, I offer some ideas to keep kids in classrooms while also addressing the legitimate health concerns held by many teachers and parents:

Classes should be held outdoors wherever possible. Football, baseball and soccer fields can be converted to outdoor classrooms; for many weeks, students and teachers wouldn’t need to spend much time indoors. Tents can keep children dry if it is raining. Heat lamps can keep them warm during a fall chill. Restaurants have figured out how to do this. Schools can, too.

Children should be kept in small, assigned groups, and groups should mingle as little as possible. If local officials decide that all students can’t attend in person five days a week to keep density low, the school week should be extended, and some classes should be held on weekends and evenings. And districts that go virtual this fall should begin planning immediately to keep schools open in the summer of 2021 to make up for lost classroom instruction.

High school students are more equipped to benefit from virtual learning than 1st graders. So if some schools must be closed, then close the high schools, keep the K-8 schools open, and use the high-school buildings for socially distanced elementary- and middle-school students. Better yet, districts should keep all schools open and work with local officials to commandeer public parks for outdoor instruction — or even vacant shopping malls for socially distanced indoor instruction — during the week.

There is an implicit assumption in many states that the school year needs to begin in late August or early September, as previously scheduled, or not at all. But state officials could directly link the goals of reducing the virus’s spread and reopening schools, telling their residents that once the spread reaches a specified low level, schools will reopen. This would encourage greater use of masks and social distancing measures. And if a state hits its target in, say, mid-October, why not begin the school year then? The choice shouldn’t be to open on September 3 or not at all.

Check out my column for my full argument. Your comments, as always, are very welcome.

Closed Schools Are a National Emergency — Where Is the Audacity?

Michael R. Strain — Michael R. Strain is the director of economic-policy studies and the Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.