The tragedy of the lost school year

Bad institutional design failed America's kids

I have been talking about the downside to COVID-19-related school closures for so long (April 2020, May 2020, July 2020) that I’ve seen the whole political valence of this topic flip and flop around several times. But the current (February 2021) state of The Discourse is that schools being closed shows that teachers unions are bad.

This is a convenient style of Discourse because lots of people locked in their views on teachers unions long before the pandemic began.

Then, there is another group of people who have somewhat ambivalent feelings about teachers unions, for whom it’s become vogueish to say that the school closures are a “complicated issue.”

But on some level, I think the scientific and public health issues here are actually really clear. What’s difficult is the institutional mechanics of the American state, in which decisions about different kinds of things are made at different levels of government, and consequently you don’t get coherent decisions. Much of the country has landed in a genuinely absurd situation where restaurants are open for indoor dining but schools are closed, even though nobody thinks restaurants are more socially important than schools or that schools or more hazardous to public health than restaurants.

While I don’t want to say that unions are a red herring in this debate, the case is that parents’ views on this are much more divided than many anti-union people want to admit. The unions aren’t magic. If there were overwhelming parental consensus in favor of school reopening, the unions wouldn’t be able to stop it. But there isn’t.

Schools and COVID-19 — what we know

I think a lot of writeups on this topic somewhat overcomplicate things by looking at different studies of different school reopenings amidst very different circumstances and drawing wildly different conclusions. And it’s better to actually start by forgetting schools and thinking about the first principles of the SARS-Cov-2 virus.

What we know now is that this is a respiratory infection that spreads via aerosols and produces much more serious illness in older people rather than younger people.

Recall that a year ago, this was all much less clear. Influenza is a serious mortality risk for young children, so prompt school closures are a standard part of the protocol for dealing with a dangerous flu pandemic. The early months of the pandemic were also dominated by fear of surface transmission via fomites, which led to a lot of concern with cleaning things. We also very early on got this sort of weird, magic formula about six feet of social distancing, and were told that “masks don’t work.”

A more contemporary understanding is that doing things outside is pretty safe, that having everyone wear good masks helps enormously, that things like open windows and HEPA filters can do a lot of good, and that children are not personally at much risk from the disease.

None of that means that “opening schools is safe” per se. But you can have kids and teachers wear masks. You can put good portable air filters into all the rooms in a school without a months-long construction project (it does take some money). You can in many cases open windows, and you can on most days shift many activities outside.

That all adds up to a picture where having schools open is pretty clearly safer than having indoor dining open, since you can’t eat with a mask on. In a world where they’re still giving people snacks on airplanes, letting Ted Cruz jet off for a weekend in Cancún, etc., having schools closed represents an irrational social response to the pandemic. In other words, regardless of exactly what you think the response should be, it shouldn’t be that. Either the schools should be closed because we’re being super-cautious (in which case indoor dining should be closed), or else the restaurants should be open because we’re not being cautious (in which case schools should be open too). For a while in D.C., we were in the situation that the D.C. suburbs are now in — restaurants open, schools closed — which is nuts.

Whose fault is this?

In some sense, this is the fault of Donald Trump, who was supposed to be leading the country toward some kind of coherent pandemic response but instead just started randomly tweeting about reopening stuff.

But in a larger sense, it’s the malign operation of American federalism.

If it were up to me, here’s what we would have done:

  • No indoor food or drink anywhere.

  • A generous bailout for the restaurant industry.

  • Schools open with teachers getting a special “hazard pay” bonus.

  • Also hazard pay for transportation workers, retail workers, and health care workers.

Compared to the status quo, the point of this is threefold:

  1. Treat teachers more like other “essential” workers whose jobs can’t be done remotely — i.e., make them come work in person even though it puts their health on the line.

  2. Treat the highest priority workers better than they’ve actually been treated during this pandemic by recognizing their efforts with extra money.

  3. Address the obvious harm of indoor unmasked activity by just banning it, and being free with cash to make that work.

I think that would have been a completely reasonable and fair settlement of the situation for everyone involved, and it would have ended up with fewer people dying and more kids learning.

But in the actual United States of America, it’s Congress that can write huge checks; it’s mostly states who write rules for restaurants; and schools are a local responsibility — often run by special purpose school boards that have no other governing powers. Given that Congress did not appropriate funds for a bar and restaurant bailout, I don’t think it’s crazy that governors mostly decided they had to reopen their restaurants. And given that this decision ensured continued community spread all through the summer and fall, I don’t think it’s crazy that teachers lobbied to keep schools closed.

It was a bad outcome. But recall that it’s not as if the federal government was out of fiscal capacity this spring and summer and somehow couldn’t bail out bars and restaurants or give people hazard pay. Republicans decided that they wanted to be the “Covid is no big deal” party, and everything flowed downhill from there, creating a lot of bad situations.

A little about me

My wife is a very good person, and she was concerned about the impact of school closures on our community. We also, unlike almost anyone else in the neighborhood, have a garage.

So what she did was buy a couple of school tables and little kid chairs and became the leader of a little Zoom kindergarten group where every day, six or seven other boys would come join my son and do remote school with our garage door open to ensure the space was de facto outside. I bought four electric space heaters so this operation could continue to run through the winter, and Claire, who’s our editor here now, worked as the assistant. Having seen this operation up close and personal, I can testify that both having the school closed was a huge pain in the ass and also that the teachers were, in fact, working really hard and doing a good job under difficult circumstances.

What aggravated me about the situation was not any sense of lazy or malingering teachers, but more that it’s just not clear what the public health gains were. We were doing remote school in a garage with the door open. I had friends who were doing remote school in giant tents. I knew families that were teaming up to do remote school indoors in small pods supervised by nannies.

Many people just did not have the option of simply isolating at home and doing school remotely. Instead, they were congregating in non-school settings to go do school remotely, which was a lot of inconvenience for what seemed like marginal gains. Why couldn’t we set up tents on school grounds? What was the actual goal of this?

How D.C. reopened schools

After several months of indecision and the true annoyance of bitter cold in December and January, D.C. eventually got a leg up thanks to our unusual governance. We are a “mayoral control” city (i.e., the schools are run by a political appointee rather than by a separately elected board), and our city government also performs the functions of a state government. So the mayor, in her capacity as essentially a governor, gave teachers vaccine priority, and then in her capacity as the head of the school system said they had to reopen. I think it’s clear that San Francisco mayor London Breed would do that if she could, but she doesn’t control California vaccination rules and she doesn’t control the San Francisco public schools, so she can’t. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown can prioritize teachers for vaccination, but she can’t guarantee that will lead to school reopenings.

My strong priors on this are that independently elected school boards are a bad idea, and that the American tradition of local control of schools is basically pernicious. Since that’s what I thought pre-COVID-19, I’m happy to reiterate the COVID-19 situation as a prime example of these things playing out poorly. Perhaps you disagree as a general matter.

But you still need to see that these institutional design issues make a difference here.

I know people in Montgomery County in the suburbs who are frustrated that indoor dining reopened before the schools. But the county officials who reopened dining don’t have the authority to reopen the schools. And the school board has no authority to close restaurants. And neither of them can orchestrate a national restaurant bailout. In fact, for the schools to avoid a budget crisis, they need local retail to generate tax revenue. It’s incredibly stupid, but there’s no unitary stupid person making the stupid decision.

The other thing that’s different, of course, is that if you reopen indoor dining and most people don’t want to chance it, then that’s up to them. But schools are inherently collective. When our school started moving toward reopening, lots of parents didn’t want to send their kids back. Our principal was, I think, pretty enthusiastic about trying to return to in-person instruction and he really encouraged people to do it. But while I was 100% on his side the whole way, the fact is that there was not overwhelming demand for it.

Parents have very mixed feelings

The reason there was so much reluctance to return to school is that my kid’s school is less than a quarter white and nearly half Black, and there is a lot of skepticism of school reopening among African Americans (that poll doesn’t show Latino opinion, but an earlier Education Next survey shows it between Black and white).

And note that even among white parents, 25% say they want schools closed, and a large number favor the nebulous hybrid option.

A lot of union critics have looked at the fact that private schools are overwhelmingly open for in-person learning, and taken that as a sign that the privileged are doing what’s best for themselves and leaving the rest to suffer. My read of the research is that it is in fact true that low-income Black and Latino kids are the ones who suffer most from the lack of in-person instruction. But I think these surveys also make it clear that private school parents are not a representative subset of American parents — the kind of people who choose to shell out tens of thousands of dollars a year for their kids’ schooling have a different relationship to education than other people.

My view is that the people who favor remote learning are mistaken. But it’s critical to understand that the teachers haven’t pulled a Jedi Mind Trick on the school boards — if support for reopening were overwhelming, the opposition wouldn’t be tenable. The reason the Biden administration is kind of squirming around this issue isn’t that public opinion is overwhelmingly against the teachers; it’s that the Biden administration is literally composed of the kind of well-educated, highly successful professionals who are most eager to see school reopen.

Now it’s true of course that if every teacher in America were jumping up and down cheerleading for reopening, that itself might sway public opinion. But that’s an important part of the truth about teachers unions — they’re powerful because people trust teachers.

Teachers are really popular

A lot of journalists think they’re smarter than most teachers, and also more read-in on the education policy literature, and that people should listen to them rather than to teachers unions on policy questions. Certainly I think everyone should listen to me.

But when teachers fight with politicians and the media, they have this huge, overwhelming edge because most people think teachers are good people while journalists and politicians are scumbags.

Now, again, a lot of people in the policy community — and especially conservative writers and Republican Party politicians — think that this is wrong. They think that the political power exerted by teachers in the United States is very harmful and damaging, and that prolonged school closures are an example of this pernicious fact of excessive teacher power. They wish, as Goldberg says, that teachers could be treated more like grocery store workers — people with little political voice or influence.

My view of teachers unions is close to my view of police unions, which for a left-of-center writer makes me pro-cop but anti-teacher.

In both cases, a real thing that has happened over the years is that politicians looking to curry favor with labor unions without wanting to raise taxes have agreed to compensate both teachers and cops with excessively strong job protections and excessively back-loaded compensation schemes that combine low starting pay with generous pensions. The consequences in the police case are obviously more serious, since cops wield the power of life and death. But the structural issue is similar.

And it leads to a similar conclusion, which is that you want to make it easier to dismiss subpar teachers, but also raise the pay for entry-level teachers and for the best-performing teachers. Then, more people are interested in teaching jobs and you have more retention of the people you don’t want to lose.

In D.C. after some years of very contentious reform, I think we ultimately landed in a good place. DCPS pays a higher starting salary for teachers than any of the 50 states, and there are good retention bonuses available for the best teachers and coaches. Every DCPS teacher I’ve met is amazing. The biggest change I’d like to make to D.C. education policy is that we should upzone all the rich neighborhoods in the city, and then plow the ensuing tax revenue gusher into pumping more money into DCPS so that we’re leaving the rest of the country in the dust on teacher pay. We shouldn’t just have the highest starting salary in the country — it should be a big enough gap that every teacher in America knows and talks about this fact.

To me, fundamentally, the success of the D.C. reform experience — which was tough, and politically controversial, but ultimately ended not with busting the union but with a big raise — shapes my view of the school reopening situation.

We really screwed “essential” workers

I think Goldberg’s hypothetical is worth taking seriously — if the United Food and Commercial Workers had the kind of clout that teachers unions have, would everyone in America have starved?

I’m going to go with no on that, because obviously you can’t do grocery shopping on Zoom and supermarket workers would not have wanted to force supermarkets to close. But maybe we would have had legally enforceable mask mandates throughout the country all summer and fall. Maybe supermarket workers would’ve been universally provided with high-quality NIOSH-certified N-95 respirators. Perhaps stores would have been forced to share more of their pandemic windfall profits with the workforce.

It doesn’t sound so bad to me.

But that’s mostly assuming something more like a European-style situation, where you’d have national-level bargaining between the supermarket workers’ union and the big grocery chains. You’d probably want to make this what they call “tripartite bargaining” where the federal government gets involved. The key elements would be that you want the stores to stay open, you want the workers to be treated fairly, and you want to allow the chains to pass through some of their additional costs to customers in the form of higher prices. You’re trying to balance these considerations so that you don’t have inflation, don’t push stores out of business, and also don’t screw workers.

And just as that would have been a better outcome, so too could we have had a better national bargain for teachers. Open schools should have been a core fall 2020 goal, paired with extra money for the staff (just frankly acknowledging that we are asking them to take a risk for the greater good instead of arguing about whether it’s safe), and a firm effort to keep other stuff closed in order to slow community spread.

It’s true that there is a fair amount of cosmic unfairness in the extent to which teachers ended up getting better treatment than other classes of workers whose jobs require in-person work. But that mostly goes to show that collective bargaining paradigms are good — everyone should have their interests safeguarded with unions. In the particular case of this school year, the fact that teachers have someone to safeguard their interests landed us in a bad place because national authorities didn’t actually take those interests seriously enough — just kicking the can down the road to a fragmented school governance system that couldn’t handle it.