In ordinary times, K–12 schools offer valuable services to two distinct populations, and arguably get far more credit for serving one than the other. School famously provides kids with an education—as well as socialization and, in many cases, support (in the form of meals and medical and mental-health services, to name a few). At the same time, with decidedly less fanfare, it provides their parents with some eight hours of daily child care, five days a week, for most of the year, freeing up time for adults to earn the money it takes to raise kids for the remaining 16 or so hours of the day. For families, economies, and societies, schools have been reliable, helpful partners for generations.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into that system the way it threw a wrench into just about everything. When offices and schools closed in March so that workers and students could comply with social-distancing guidelines, things fell apart for working parents. Suddenly kids were trying to learn but struggling because they weren’t in real school; meanwhile, their parents were trying to work but struggling because their kids needed looking after.
Because the subtraction of school created this crisis for parents, it’s tempting to see adding school back into the equation as the solution. Indeed, a number of state governments, as well as President Donald Trump, have subscribed to this logic and have pushed to reopen schools as a way to ensure economic recovery. But given what we know now about how COVID-19 spreads, the return of schools as they were—indoor spaces filled with people from different households, talking to and breathing on one another five days a week—is a nightmarish prospect for many parents, teachers, and students alike. Even in non-pandemic times, “anytime you bring together large groups of children who may not have the best hygiene practices in one place, you’re going to see increased transmission of a variety of different diseases,” Virginia Pitzer, an epidemiology professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told me. Including a hyper-contagious illness with no cure or vaccine in the mix makes for a dangerous situation.