John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews Alec MacGillis’ “School’s Out,” a book about the response of schools and teachers to the pandemic. My takeaway: It’s tough to write a book about a pandemic when it’s not over.

When I first read Alec MacGillis’ School’s Out, I worried that he reached conclusions that were too optimistic, but it made me hopeful. After all, it was a co-production by ProPublica and New Yorker, and MacGillis had listened to numerous top public health experts. Upon rereading, and following his links, I’ve reached a more discouraging appraisal. The published research he cites actually makes the case for more caution, and against MacGillis’ implicit call to reopen schools more quickly for in-person instruction.   

School’s Out touched all bases in reviewing recent research, but I’m afraid MacGillis didn’t focus enough on the experience of educators. In fact, after discussing recent research with a Baltimore teacher who he respected, he was surprised that she still opposed the reopening for in-person classes. To his credit, MacGillis presented her side of the story but he didn’t seem to understand why school environments would “snowball” the transmission effects. 

At first, MacGillis did an excellent job of personalizing the complexity of the threats that Covid brings to already-weakened high-poverty schools. He described a 12-year-old Baltimore student, Shemar, who he had tutored. MacGillis surveyed the technological problems which made it so much more difficult for online instruction to serve Shemar’s needs. Then he explained why technology shortcomings were only a part of the overall situation. Real solutions would require the education system to rebuild personal contacts with students like Shemar.

Also to his credit, rather than embrace the blame-game of the last generation, MacGillis wrote that Shemar’s teachers “worried about him but had a hard time reaching him, given his mother’s frequent changes of phone number. One time, his English teacher drove to his house and visited with him on the small front porch.” Moreover, MacGillis expressed regret that he had not been more helpful, “I checked on Shemar a couple of times during the spring, but, in hindsight, I was too willing to let the lockdown serve as an excuse to hunker down with my own kids, who were doing online learning at other Baltimore public schools.” 

This could have foreshadowed a recommendation for caution in the complicated task of restarting in-person instruction. Yes, he could have concluded, the most vulnerable children suffer the most under a virtual education system. If a rushed reopening occurs, however, and it fails, the poorest children of color would be damaged even more.

MacGillis mentioned areas where urban schools have less capacity than affluent American schools or high-performing systems across the world. For instance, a student who was more worried about his mother losing her job than logging in to remote learning made the common, correct prediction, “‘I don’t care if I fail. I’m 14, in seventh grade — I don’t think they’re going to fail me again.’ He was right.” MacGillis then made the more important observation about poor children of color:

Society’s attention to them has always been spotty, but they had at least been visible — one saw them on the way to school, in their blue or burgundy uniforms, or in the park and the playground afterward. Now they were behind closed doors, and so were we, with full license to turn inward. While we dutifully stayed home to flatten the curve, children like Shemar were invisible.

MacGillis then cited Christopher Morphew, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, when warning: 

“The failure to plan now, to spend the money now, is going to cost us in human resources, in violence, in other ways, for a long time,” he said. He estimated that the closure could result in 18 months of “summer melt,” the term for the educational regression caused by long breaks in schooling. “Eighteen months of summer melt when you’re already three grades behind is virtually impossible to come back from.”

However, I’m afraid that MacGillis failed to thoroughly consider why urban students like Shemar are so far behind. He recalled a great deal of 19thand 20th century education history, while ignoring the 21st century where trust was further undermined by corporate school reformers who imposed quick fixes that educators knew were doomed to fail.

Then, I worry that School’s Out was sidetracked by a simplistic account of the way that President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos undermined the efforts to safely reopen schools in the fall. In July, Trump proclaimed, “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.” And the “instantaneous” result was, “Teachers who had been responsive to the idea of returning to the classroom suddenly regarded the prospect much more warily.”

The big problem, however, wasn’t teachers’ new fearfulness. The problem was the realities created by Trump, “governors and everybody else” who made it impossible to safely reopen many schools. For instance, a Brookings Institution study  “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.” That reality was bad enough. But, School’s Out didn’t to seem fully consider how much schools in urban areas which voted against Trump are poorer and, often, politically powerless.

MacGillis cited a list of affluent and private schools, and schools in nations that better handled the coronavirus and did what is takes to return to in-person learning. Even after repeatedly using the words community and “community spread,” MacGillis (and sometimes the public health experts he cited) ignored the ways that the reopening of bars, and the rest of the economy; the rush to return to in-person college classes, and football; and the often widespread refusal to even wear masks and respect social distancing made it unlikely that many schools could reopen safely. 

MacGillis even cites Texas, Florida and Georgia as hopeful examples, noting that case numbers have declined from their summer highs as schools reopen, but the New York Times lists Texas and Georgia as only having “some” reporting for school districts with reporting “planned” in Florida. Regardless, who would see those state’s tragedies as best public health practices and celebrate the way that infections haven’t gone all the way up to their most tragic levels?

In doing so, MacGillis seems to forget the timing of the political mandates and the publication dates of public health research.  Had the comprehensive efforts of March and April, that broke the infection curve in many American cities and European nations, and had federal resources not been cut back so quickly, educators could have prioritized in-person and/or hybrid  instruction in the fall, while also working on virtual systems that might be necessary if a “second wave” hit.   

By June, however, there was a major pushback by the Trump administration and pro-Trump governors against public health expertise. This was best illustrated three weeks into June when Trump spoke to an indoor crowd in Tulsa. But citing an op-ed in The New York Times on July 1, by Jennifer Nuzzo and Joshua Sharfstein, MacGillis explained, “Nuzzo had supported lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the spring, but by the summer she was arguing that schools should plan to reopen in much of the country.”

Moreover, he added, “A number of experts were beginning to agree with Nuzzo and Sharfstein.” He also drew on Harvard’s Meira Levinson’s article in The New England Journal of Medicine laying out how to reopen primary schools, and Harvard’s Joseph Allen, who co-wrote a 62-page plan listing steps that schools could take to reduce transmission risk.

Being a retired teacher, with too many years of being a consumer of rushed Big Data hypotheses, I read the actual wording of these scholarly papers and connected the dots very differently than MacGillis. Nuzzo and Sharfstein may have disagreed with my synthesis of the evidence but, as they wrote, education decision-makers had to deal with the real world consequences of “the way states lifted social distancing restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus sadly demonstrates our priorities. Officials let bars, restaurants and gyms open, despite warnings from public health experts that these environments pose the greatest risk for spreading the disease.”

I suspect the Times editor who drafted the Op-Ed’s title would have agreed with me about the key takeaway: “We Have to Focus on Opening Schools, Not Bars.” Yes, “Resuming classroom instruction is crucial. Infection control inside and outside classrooms can let it happen.” But, “political leaders seem to have paid scant attention to safely reopening schools,” and “the consequences of those backward priorities …  Covid-19 rampaging through states that reopened quickly — make it even more vital that we extensively prepare to reopen classrooms as safely as possible this fall.” 

But what would it take to do so?

In this political climate where increased funding, masks, and even social distancing were being repudiated in so many states, Nuzzo and Sharfstein argued, “Reopening businesses that pose a major risk of community spread should be a lower priority than reopening schools.” They called for building the capacity for “robust tracing, isolation and quarantining;” funding for “finding other buildings and space where they could expand;” in-school “bubbles” or “small groups of students who will learn, eat lunch and have recess together;” a system to protect “staff members who are older or have chronic medical conditions;” a “creative” transportation system; and improved online instruction systems.

Similarly, Meira Levinson’s article said, “Even under conditions of moderate transmission (<10 cases per 100,000 people), … we believe that primary schools should be recognized as essential services — and school personnel as essential workers — and that school reopening plans should be developed and financed accordingly.” But, it also said:

Any region experiencing moderate, high, or increasing levels of community transmission should do everything possible to lower transmission. The path to low transmission in other countries has included adherence to stringent community control measures — including closure of nonessential indoor work and recreational spaces. Such measures along with universal mask wearing must be implemented now in the United States if we are to bring case numbers down to safe levels for elementary schools to reopen this fall nationwide.

It thus offered little practical advice to those schools in states that rejected the wisdom of public health experts.  

And Joseph Allen’s position sounded like it was even more opposed to the caution of educators, but the disclaimer at the beginning of “Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools” said the guidelines were “intended to offer guidance regarding best practices regarding the general operations of buildings in an effort to reduce the risk of disease transmission.” The report:

Is in no way intended to override or supersede guidance from government and health organizations, including, without limitation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the United States Government, and or any States. The information contained herein reflects the available information at the time the report was created. User recognizes that details and information are changing daily.

In other words, in July, it would have been difficult, or impossible, for educators in many states and most urban districts to see the evidence that was “changing daily” as enough to justify in-person instruction by September. Then, on July 18, the New York Times reported that a massive study by South Korean experts found that “children younger than 10 transmit to others much less often than adults do, but the risk is not zero. And those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.”

MacGillis cited researchers who “immediately found problems with the study’s conclusions, pointing out that the sample of children who had become sick was exceedingly small,” and “it was not clear whether older children had passed the virus to adults or had got it at the same time and shown symptoms earlier.” I also was reassured by their pushback. But then I followed MacGillis’ link to Alasdair Munro, a clinical research fellow in pediatric infectious diseases at University Hospital Southampton, and found it was a Twitter debate. I became more concerned that he was engaging in an academic debate, as opposed to evaluating what decision-makers need to know about the dangers of reopening and when did they need to know it in order to make plans and implement them.  

On Twitter, Munro criticized the Korean study saying that he had seen unpublished data to the contrary and that “it was a mistake to rush to use this study as high quality evidence that children are highly infectious (even more so than adults!) once they reach 10 years old.”  It wasn’t until August 10, however, that such evidence was reported. 

My reading of the debate was that Munro didn’t make the case for schools in high-transmission areas not taking the Korean study seriously when deciding whether to reopen. But, even if Munro made the case, he was doing so on the eve of the reopening dates proposed in many high-risk areas. How could educators implement plans, based on that continuing debate, in a few weeks?

Rather than get into the weeds of the Twitter exchange which School’s Out drew upon, I’ll just cite Munro’s latest positions. First, he argues “Careful reopening of schools in areas of low community prevalence with good, basic infection prevention measures can work.” And his summary of the evidence is: “If prevalence [is] high in the community, it will be high in schools and some will transmit; Isolated cases result in low transmission; and Infection prevention works.” But he never seems to touch the question of how prevention can work in schools in communities that won’t invest in it.

And that brings me back about what was excellent and what was misguided by School’s Out. MacGillis was eloquent about the disaster which is likely unfolding and which is most damaging our poorest children of color. He correctly concludes that huge numbers of disadvantaged students like Shemar need to get “out of the home and into school, every day.” But the battle against the isolation these children face is “on hold.” This is the tragic reality:

For the foreseeable future, Shemar would be spending his days as he had spent the spring and the summer: in a dark room, in front of a screen, with virtually no direct interaction with kids anywhere close to his own age. Sometimes the screen would hold Minecraft and Fortnite; sometimes, if he got the hang of the log-ins, it would hold Zoom.

And we must welcome the guidance of public health experts who are calling for holistic instruction, recognition of the effects of poverty, segregation, and trauma, and acknowledging that schools alone can’t overcome these interconnected challenges. We should be thankful that public health experts have done such a great job of laying out realistic advice and plans for reopening our schools. It’s not their fault that Trumpism undermined their contributions.

Moreover, our failure to reopen in a safe and timely manner will almost certainly prompt the flight of middle-class and affluent families from traditional public schools, resulting in the loss of per-student funding. MacGillis concludes with the prediction by Jon Hale, of the University of Illinois that “the consequences could be tragic. It will decimate the system for those who rely on it.”  In other words, the hard facts are even starker than acknowledged in School’s Out. We are heading for a disaster for many, many students. But, it would have been worse if our most vulnerable urban districts had given into pressure and rushed the return to in-person instruction.