(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — President Donald Trump gets something right.
He was right to choose General James Mattis as his defense secretary, though by early 2019 Mattis had left the administration in disgust. Trump is right that the U.S. needs more manufacturing jobs, though his means of bringing that about — a counterproductive trade war with China — could not be more misguided. He is right that big tech companies such as Google deserve antitrust scrutiny, even though his rationale — that Big Tech is suppressing conservative voices — is a right-wing myth.
And he was right when he said in the presidential debate Tuesday night: “People want their schools open.” As every parent of a school-age child knows, that is certainly true. Indeed, when you look closely at the pros and cons of opening schools during this pandemic, you soon realize that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of reopening. Except for one thing: Trump supports it. That is a large reason virtually every big-city school district in the country has begun school remotely. If Trump favors something, his opponents blindly feel compelled to oppose it. (The one big exception is New York City, not exactly a hotbed of Trump support, which completed the reopening of all its public schools Thursday morning.)
It’s hardly news that the pandemic has been incredibly politicized. Liberals and other Trump opponents embrace masks; Trump and his supporters mock them. Trump and his supporters touted the supposed efficacy of hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment; opponents believed (correctly) that it was worthless in the fight against the virus. Trump and his backers believe that government scientists are trying to damage him politically; opponents believe those same scientists are trying to communicate the truth about the virus to the public despite the administration’s resistance. And so on.
All of these examples come with tragic consequences, but none more so than the politicization of school reopenings. In the current issue of the New Yorker, Alec MacGillis of ProPublica has a powerful story making the case for the importance of opening schools despite the pandemic. He brings to heartbreaking life the words of the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Lengthy time away from school … often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.”
He tells his story through Shemar, a 12-year-old living in East Baltimore whom MacGillis tutors once a week — or at least he did before the arrival of the coronavirus. Shemar, MacGillis writes, is good at math and has a surprising vocabulary, but his mother is an addict, and he is often drowsy in school because he stays up late watching TV with her.
When Baltimore schools were shut down in March — and the school district moved to remote learning — Shemar was lost. MacGillis got him a computer, but even so, he had only four hours a week of live online instruction. He had trouble accessing the links with reminders of class times and getting onto Google Classroom. Often he didn’t have internet access at all.
“Remote learning,” MacGillis writes, “was proving disastrous.” Shemar was hardly alone, of course. Hundreds — nay, thousands — of disadvantaged children in Baltimore were facing the same obstacles; many of them simply stopped tuning into school at all. They were falling so far behind it was unlikely they would ever catch up. “While we dutifully stayed home to flatten the curve,” MacGillis writes, speaking of elites like him, “children like Shemar were invisible.”
Over the summer, experts began to suggest that the risk to children or their teachers of being infected in school was low. And in any case, it was vastly outweighed by the risk posed to children who no longer had a school to go to.
The American Academy of Pediatrics called for schools to be reopened. Two experts, Jennifer Nuzzo of Johns Hopkins University and Joshua Sharfstein, the former Maryland health secretary, pointed out in the New York Times that children made up only 2% of U.S. Covid-19 cases and had a hospitalization rate of 0.1% per 100,000. Joseph Allen, an expert with Harvard’s school of public health, led an effort to put together a plan that would allow schools to reopen while reducing transmission risk. “There’s certainly no such thing as zero risk in anything we do, and that is certainly the case during a pandemic,” he said in a conference call, according to MacGillis. But, Allen added, “there are devastating costs of keeping kids out of school.”
In Baltimore, the school district began putting some of Allen’s recommendations into place, preparing to bring students back to school in September. Its plan was to use the hybrid model — students would be in a classroom a few days a week and do remote learning the rest of the time.
But on July 7, Trump came out forcefully in favor of opening schools. “It’s very important for our country,” he said. “It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: open your schools in the fall.”
And boom: just like that, Baltimore’s teachers — and many parents — turned against reopening. Suddenly, they found all sorts of reasons to go back to remote learning — reasons that boiled down to the false notion that students and teachers were more vulnerable to the virus than other groups in other institutions.
Once Trump made his views known, reopening schools became another pandemic flashpoint, with liberals — and the liberal teachers’ unions — fiercely opposed to the idea. According to MacGillis, it got so far afield that in Detroit, “a white progressive activist compared requiring Black children’s attendance at school to the Tuskegee Study, in the nineteen-thirties, in which hundreds of Black men with syphilis went deliberately untreated.”
During the debate, Trump said that schools were being closed in Democratic cities in the hope that it might hurt him politically — and he may have a point. In Los Angeles, the county health director was caught on an audio tape recently saying that L.A. schools wouldn’t reopen until after the November election. (A spokesperson later said that the comment “was related only to timing” of school reopenings.)
Regardless, it is indisputable that Trump’s continued insistence that schools be open has only hardened his opponents’ resistance. MacGillis pointed to a Brookings Institution study that found that “districts’ school-opening decisions correlated much more strongly with levels of support for Trump in the 2016 election than with local coronavirus case levels.”
“It almost feels like folly now to speak about data,” Nuzzo told him. “The decision was going to be made not on data but on politics.”
In truth, the data continues to be on the side of those who want to see children back in school. Children continue to be at lower risk of getting Covid-19 and of spreading it. (The South Korean study that was interpreted as showing that children between ages 10 and 19 spread the virus more frequently than adults has since been called into question.) Teachers are no more or less vulnerable than people who work in grocery stores or offices. Studies about reopened schools in other countries continue to bear that out.
Nonetheless, it is clear that no amount of data will persuade Trump opponents to back school reopenings — not until the president is out of office. In the debate Tuesday night, Joe Biden made a point about schools that Trump always ignores: school districts need money — lots of it — to make school buildings as safe as they should be. He has promised to deliver that money if he becomes president.
We can only hope that when that finally happens, and classrooms finally reopen, it won’t be too late for kids like Shemar.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."
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