Nicholas Kristof: ‘Remote learning’ is often an oxymoron

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Tevis Hadley, left, sets up his face time and email accounts with some help from Arthur Tucker at Kaysville charter school Career Path High Tuesday September 10. Both are juniors at the school. All 175 students were assigned an Apple laptop for the school year.

While President Donald Trump has insisted that schools physically reopen, the private school his son Barron is attending is sticking with remote learning.

Yes, that feels like a double standard, but it’s more complicated than that. Barron will have a computer and internet access at home. He’ll have adults making sure he does his work, and he’ll be able to eat his fill without free school lunches.

In short, affluent children will mostly be fine even without in-person classes. But one study found that almost 17 million American children live in homes without high-speed internet, and more than 7 million don’t have a computer at home. For disadvantaged kids, “online learning” is an oxymoron.

Prolonged school closures will worsen dropout rates across the nation, for missing just 10% of class days is associated with a sevenfold increased risk of dropping out. Even in normal times, only 53% of children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools finish high school. Closures after Hurricane Katrina led many students to leave school for good.

I fear that Trump’s hyperbolic embrace of reopening schools has led Democrats to be instinctively wary. The risk is that in trying to protect students from the pandemic — especially disadvantaged students — we may permanently damage their futures.

Let’s sort through the evidence, which is inconsistent.

It’s false to assert, as Trump did, that children are “virtually immune” to the coronavirus, but the direct risk to schoolchildren is small. Those ages 5 through 14 account for fewer than 1 in every 1,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Among all causes of death of children in that age group since February, the coronavirus was responsible less than 1% of the time.

The greater risk is to elderly teachers and to students’ grandparents, but advocates of reopening schools note that other countries have successfully operated schools. In most of those places, like Germany, Denmark, Norway and Taiwan, COVID-19 was relatively rare, but Sweden kept its schools open even though it has had a significantly higher per capita death toll than the United States.

I’ve criticized Sweden’s approach to the pandemic, which resulted in very high mortality and substantial economic damage, but it does offer a window into what happens when a country with elevated levels of COVID-19 keeps schools open. Sweden found no increased risk to teachers, compared with those in other jobs.

One review article by a Swedish epidemiologist, Jonas Ludvigsson, concluded: “Children are unlikely to be the main drivers of the pandemic. Opening up schools and kindergartens is unlikely to impact COVID-19 mortality rates in older people.”

There’s plenty of contrary evidence, however. A study in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that children may carry enough virus to spread the pandemic. The coronavirus raced through a sleepaway camp in Georgia so that 76% of campers and staff members for whom test results were available tested positive. Schools in at least five states reopened and then had to close again, at least temporarily, after eruptions of the virus — a particular problem in parts of the country that did not take the pandemic seriously.

Putting aside the health impact, we also know that low-income children suffer disproportionately not only from the virus, but also from school closures. McKinsey has estimated that prolonged closures could cost students up to 14 months of education and lead to 1 million additional high school dropouts. The educational losses would reduce lifetime earnings of students by $80,000 each, with Black and Latino students suffering percentage drops in incomes twice as great as those among whites, McKinsey calculated.

Given all this, the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics seems right, that we do everything possible to allow children to safely resume in-person learning.

That’s especially true for special needs students (about 14% of enrollment), as well as low-income pupils and those at risk of dropping out. But this isn’t about rashly herding children into schools, but about doing all that can be done to make schools safe. That means aggressive testing, mask-wearing, open windows, outdoor classes when possible and grouping students in pods, and it will require much more federal assistance for schools.

Let’s also embrace Bandwidth for All, modeled on rural electrification in the 1930s and ’40s. The internet is as essential today as electricity was then.

There will be some places in the United States where coronavirus prevalence is so high that in-person schooling will have to be suspended, but that should be the exception. It’s absurd that we have allowed liquor stores, gyms, gun shops, restaurants and marijuana dispensaries to operate while keeping schools shut.

Let’s also remember that in a larger sense the best way to reopen schools is to demand responsibility from our leaders and all the rest of us. The path is straightforward: Control the virus with masks, business lockdowns, social distancing, aggressive testing and rigorous surveillance (including sewage testing, which gives early warning that the virus is present). If our peer countries can do it, we can, too. Our children are worth it.

Nicholas D. Kristof

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.