Tribune Editorial: Schools are more important, less dangerous

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hillcrest Junior High School, closed on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Getting an education is both more important and less dangerous than getting a cheeseburger, a beer or a turn on the treadmill.

Time spent in a classroom is more essential, and less deadly, than a big wedding, a family reunion or a company Christmas party.

And the real need of every child for a full education is infinitely greater than any adult’s imagined right to walk around without a mask.

So why, in an increasing number of American cities, from Herriman to New York, are schools closed and restaurants open?

Why send elementary school students home to fend for themselves, maybe with a laptop and tenuous contact with teachers who have had precious little time to prepare, as we leave restaurants open and depend on the good sense of people who may not have any to wear masks and keep their distance?

Because it is easier to close a school, or an entire school district, than to persuade — or order — a critical mass of individuals and businesses to behave in ways that we know will greatly limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even if the schools had had time to plan, test and implement a system of remote learning, it is difficult to see that even the best-designed online school would make up in academic progress what would inevitably have been lost in social, behavioral and empathetic development, especially for elementary-age students.

Allowing restaurants, retail stores, bars, gyms, theaters, sports venues and the like to remain open, or to open again, is based mostly on the argument that our economy is too important, and too fragile, for us to do otherwise. And there is an element of truth in that.

But federal and state money can make up for individual and business losses in income. No check from any government will replace a lost education.

Like many a high school student who doesn’t grasp the long-term economic individual benefit of staying in school, our society is too eager to ignore the long-term economic damage that will be done as millions of young people fall behind in their education. The dropout rate is likely to rise and, with it, crime, substance abuse, welfare dependency. All as creativity, innovation and self-fulfillment crater.

A Wharton School report puts the total value of lifelong earnings forfeited at more than $5 trillion if the schools don’t reopen until January. And with that, according to one medical journal article, reduced life expectancy among millions of American students — due to increased levels of alcohol consumption, smoking, drug abuse, heart disease and hazardous employment — will add up to more than 5.5 million years.

As COVID-19 cases climb, deaths become more common among even people who are not elderly and the possibility of even young people contracting life-altering maladies becomes frighteningly more apparent, school board members and superintendents find that they have no say over how businesses or individuals outside the schoolhouse behave. So they push the only button they have. They close schools. Again.

With popular support, some time and a whole lot of money, schools could become much more pandemic-resistant. Move classes to larger spaces with more ventilation. Stagger instructional hours so fewer students and teachers are in a building, classroom or lunchroom all at the same time. Test. Trace. Isolate. Masks. Masks. Masks.

As with all education worthy of the name, school in a time of COVID should have benefits to society beyond today’s students. In the current situation, it would help to beef up science and health classes to stress the kind of knowledge that is far too lacking in the wider culture.

Train up children in the way they should go, understanding the facts of science generally and immunology and infectious diseases specifically, and we all will have a better chance of overcoming the voices of ignorance, selfishness and political cowardice that continue to fuel this pandemic.

We need to save the schools. So they can save us.