School is back in session around the world, but U.S. still contemplating reopening

I previously wrote about three different scenarios the Minnesota Department of Education is weighing regarding what back to school will look like for students this fall.

One option is that students do not return to school buildings at all.

And while other states are also considering this possibility, schools around the world are already back to school, even in European nations that had higher fatality rates from COVID-19 than the U.S. And they did so with far less per pupil spending available than the U.S.

According to Frederick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute, the United States’ reluctance to reopen is driven by “American education elites playing a game of chicken with state and federal lawmakers” over spending. The U.S. spends roughly $14,000 per student on average—thousands more than nations who have already reopened.

Seeking additional aid is understandable, Hess points out, given there are safety expenses involved in reopening, such as personal protective equipment for teachers and rigorous school sanitization, but he is not convinced the recent calls for more money in the name of student safety will actually result in student safety.

After all, as the CDC has reported, just 14 of the first 69,000 COVID deaths were children under the age of 14. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, but that realization means we must also weigh the risks of keeping 50 million children home for months on end. Even setting aside lost learning and the emotional devastation of school closures, locales around the country are reporting huge increases in calls to crisis hotlines and substantial decreases in child abuse reports (not because abuse is actually declining, but because kids aren’t in contact with adults who typically report abuse—teachers, doctors, and police).

Education advocates have pointed to Israel, which has seen new outbreaks following school re-openings, as an illustration of the risks of re-opening. At the same time, other countries have re-opened and seen no spike in cases around schools. Until there’s a vaccine, every decision relating to COVID will require balancing risks. But the risks of re-opening must be balanced against those of staying closed.

Hess is by no means arguing that reopening schools will be easy, but that the U.S. should be able to figure it out given we have more time to plan and more money to work with.

…[I]f France is already doing it for $9,500 per pupil, U.S. school leaders should be able to do better with months to plan and thousands more per pupil at their disposal.

If our education leaders aren’t up for the challenge, Hess continues, “lawmakers should give parents the chance to do better by giving them the resources set aside to educate the nation’s youth.” As I discuss here, one way to do that is through emergency education savings accounts (ESAs). Not only are ESAs a targeted solution that would help address budget concerns without asking for spending increases, they also could be used to ensure students can continue learning safely.