Public health experts have been repeating this same refrain since the summer, when many states and cities reopened businesses like bars, restaurants, and gyms — all areas where the coronavirus is thought to spread readily — without a clear plan to reopen school buildings. And the call has only gotten louder in recent weeks as cases skyrocket in a third viral wave and officials close schools while keeping indoor dining open.
For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on November 18 that school buildings would close in the city in response to rising cases — but gyms and reduced-capacity indoor dining remain open, at least for now.
While there remains some debate, schools don’t appear to be major sources of viral spread in this pandemic. Restaurants, bars, and gyms, however — places where adults congregate, often in close quarters and often without masks — do seem to contribute to outbreaks. Indeed, many European countries that have locked down to mitigate their second waves have allowed schools to remain open while such businesses close. “It seems very clear to me that schools ought to be our priority,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at the University of Washington, told Vox.
So why aren’t more places in the US closing the bars and keeping the schools open?
There are a lot of reasons, from agreements with teachers’ unions to pressure from restaurant and other lobbying groups to parents’ understandable fears of exposing their children — and potentially themselves — to a deadly virus. But one big reason for the seeming disconnect has gone somewhat overlooked: the lack of help from the federal government.
Money from the federal CARES Act kept many businesses afloat through shutdowns earlier this year, and expanded unemployment benefits and $1,200 stimulus checks kept many laid-off workers out of poverty. But with no more help on the horizon for businesses or ordinary people, shutdowns at the state and local level could have a steep cost, many say, leaving some local leaders hesitant to try them.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of layoffs again, and I think we’re going to see a lot of people go out of business,” Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the freelancing platform Upwork and the owner of two small businesses in Pennsylvania, told Vox.
Closing down schools, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same immediate economic impact, since teachers can still work and get paid while classes are remote. But shuttering school buildings does affect students’ learning, as well as parents’ ability to work, which will hamper any economic recovery in the future — as well as hurting kids and families today. In some ways, policymakers may be trading short-term economic damage for longer-term devastation, as an entire generation of working parents — the majority of them mothers — is forced to choose between getting a paycheck and caring for kids.
In general, the choice of restaurants over schools is yet another way the US government’s handling of the pandemic has caused needless pain, many say. “It’s not the Covid pandemic that has harmed so many businesses,” Ozimek said. “It’s our mismanagement of the Covid pandemic.”
Many places are leaving businesses open while schools are closed
While schools closed in all 50 states this spring as the first wave of the pandemic swept around the country, reopening in the fall has been a more uneven process: As of this summer, 49 percent of school districts planned for fully in-person classes, while 26 percent planned for a fully remote start and 12 percent planned on a hybrid model. Since then, some districts, especially in urban areas, have pushed back plans to return to in-person instruction as this fall’s surge in virus cases arrived.
But the evidence so far suggests that schools themselves have not been a major driver of outbreaks. In New York City, the largest district to try some in-person learning, the average test positivity rate in schools was just 0.17 percent as of last week, compared with close to 3 percent in the city as a whole. In Florida, meanwhile, reopening schools in the fall did not appear to lead to a surge in cases among children.
Some have argued that we don’t yet know enough about transmission within schools to say much about their safety, noting that little current research has focused specifically on Black and other students of color who come from communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
Meanwhile, the risks to teachers — who, as adults, are more likely to become seriously ill from the virus — appear to be greater than the risks to students. And reopening of schools has often been driven more by politics than by science, with President Trump calling for schools around the country to reopen this summer in the face of rising caseloads, and without the financial assistance many said they needed to do so safely. Thanks in part to his pressure, schools are more likely to be open in more conservative areas of the country, which have tended to have fewer restrictions overall even as cases rise.
But in general, public health experts have not ranked schools among the most dangerous venues for Covid-19.
There’s a growing body of evidence, however, that restaurants, bars, and gyms are significant contributors to community transmission. A recent study using cellphone mobility data, for example, found that these venues were some of the biggest contributors to the spread of the virus in the spring, and that reducing capacity in them could be an effective way of reducing transmission in the future. In one CDC study, people who tested positive for Covid-19 were twice as likely to have eaten in a restaurant recently as those who tested negative, as Benjamin P. Linas wrote for Vox.
But even as states and cities reimpose restrictions to combat the fall surge, restaurants and gyms remain open in some places where most schools are closed or on the verge of closing — like Boston and New York City — even though closing eateries might do far more to curb spread. In other areas, such as San Francisco, indoor dining has closed only recently in response to new surges, while schools never opened in-person at all. Meanwhile, areas such as New York and New Jersey have instituted smaller restrictions like curfews on restaurants, even though some public health experts are skeptical of their efficacy.
Overall, while leaders are moving to impose restrictions as cases rise, the country is taking a slow and piecemeal approach in which schools can sometimes feel like an afterthought. And some of the reasons say a lot about the federal government’s failure to adequately respond to Covid-19.
Decisions about schools are reflective of larger pressures on cities and states
A lot of factors have gone into districts’ decisions to close or open schools. Teachers, for example, have been concerned about the risks to their health, especially in places where school buildings are old and poorly ventilated. When New York City reopened schools earlier this year, de Blasio announced that they would close if the citywide positivity rate hit 3 percent on a seven-day average, a threshold the teachers’ union urged the city to stick to as cases rose.
Some parents pushed back against the plan, arguing that schools should not shutter since they have not been major drivers of spread. “It seems like schools are the only thing being threatened with a shutdown,” said Daniela Jampel, a New York City parent who organized a petition to keep schools open, told Gothamist.
But other parents have concerns about keeping schools open. Some have chosen not to send their children back in person — in New York, for example, only 26 percent of students have attended class in person this year. And around the country, many Black and Latinx families, who often come from communities hard-hit by the virus, have been more wary than white parents about sending their kids back in person. In a poll conducted in the summer, about 67 percent of Black families said they supported keeping school remote, compared with just 32 percent of white families.
De Blasio announced on November 18 that schools in the city would close since the city’s positivity rate had hit the 3 percent threshold. Meanwhile, indoor dining, gyms, and other businesses remain open, although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that closure of dining rooms in the city could be coming soon.
Overall, decisions about school are fraught because they involve children — and even though kids seem less vulnerable to the virus than adults, parents and policymakers are often leery of putting them in harm’s way.
But there’s another big reason schools are closed while restaurants are open: money.
State and local authorities are in a tough position on ordering the closure of businesses like restaurants and bars. “It’s a really fragile time for small businesses,” Ozimek said, with many still taking in reduced revenue or losing money in the recession. “Then you add a several-month lockdown onto it, or even a several-week lockdown — that’s just a recipe for businesses who have made it this far not being able to go any further.”
And business closures or contractions will likely lead to layoffs. Some (though by no means all) of the millions of Americans laid off or furloughed in the spring have been rehired or gotten new jobs, Ozimek notes. But if more businesses fail, fall closures could be even more devastating — we could see “a lot of permanent layoffs as the businesses go under and people don’t have a job to go back to.”
For example, in hard-hit El Paso, Texas, 300 businesses have already shuttered due to the pandemic, according to the Washington Post. And 300 more, including restaurants, nail salons, and retail stores, don’t have enough cash on hand to survive for more than a month — and the city is already under a shutdown of nonessential businesses until December 1.
Around the country, “if we have more shutdowns, we are going to see unemployment rates spike again,” Lucy Dadayan, a senior research associate with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told Vox.
Closing schools doesn’t have quite the same immediate economic effect, something local and state leaders are likely factoring into their decision-making — teachers can still work remotely and draw salaries, and public schools, at least, won’t shut down permanently due to virus-related closures.
Of course, closing schools still has economic effects — for example, a disproportionate share of women dropped out of the workforce in September, with the demands of child care and homeschooling likely a major factor. And then there’s the long-term impact of school closures on students. Research conducted in the spring found significant learning losses, with Black and Latinx students and those from low-income neighborhoods disproportionately affected.
Meanwhile, uncontrolled surges of the virus will likely also lead to layoffs and business closures, even without shutdowns, as fewer people go out and spend money. “Even if some businesses are still open and functioning despite the surge in cases, we are not functioning at full capacity,” Dadayan said. “The economy is not going to be back at the place where it was before the pandemic anytime soon.”
In a way, closing schools while leaving businesses open simply shifts the burden of the pandemic onto families with kids, where the impacts are no less severe, even if they’re less immediately visible. “Especially low-income families need their child to be in a supervised space so they can go to work, or even if they’re working from home,” Lake said. “Academically and economically, it’s a little bit crazy to prioritize bars over schools.”
To close businesses without economic devastation, states and cities need federal help
But when it comes to restrictions on businesses, authorities at the state and local level have been hamstrung, to some degree, by Washington’s inability to act.
“The federal government did not give them the tools and help they need to shut down those businesses without doing serious, long-term harm to their economies,” Ozimek said.
The biggest tool they need, many say, is stimulus money — funding, like that provided by the CARES Act, that could help keep businesses afloat and help ordinary people pay their bills if they’re not able to work. As Vox’s German Lopez reports, experts agree that such stimulus is necessary to help people and the economy weather the kinds of lockdowns that seem increasingly necessary as cases surge and winter approaches.
Many European nations like Britain and France have heeded this lesson and enacted furlough programs under which the government steps in to pay a portion of wages for companies affected by the pandemic. These programs have, so far, helped Europe avoid the huge layoffs that the US has faced: While unemployment here went from 3.5 percent to 14.7 percent between February and April, Europe saw a smaller rise from 6.5 percent in February to 7.4 percent in August, according to the Washington Post.
But so far, there’s little sign of another stimulus on the horizon, with Republicans in the Senate opposing both enhanced unemployment and a second round of checks to American taxpayers, which House Democrats made part of their proposal. President-elect Joe Biden has called for restart grants to help small businesses recover from the pandemic, as well as a government-funded workshare plan to help businesses bring back workers, but these, too, would likely need the support of Congress. Democrats face a steep challenge in winning control of the Senate in Georgia’s runoff elections in January.
He has also selected a team of experts to manage the Covid-19 response, including Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who spoke to the New York Times this week of the importance of prioritizing schools over businesses like restaurants. “I would consider school an essential service,” she told the Times. “Those other things are not essential services.”
Ultimately, the country will need a plan for supporting both students and workers — who often have kids at home themselves. Unfortunately, such a plan doesn’t seem forthcoming under the current administration, and the country has to get through a fall and winter under Trump. Without a change in direction, we may continue to see states and cities prioritize businesses over schools — because the federal government has left them with only bad choices.
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