Bars or schools? How nations rank education in pandemic priorities.

When New York City schools closed abruptly last month to in-person learning as COVID-19 positivity rates reached 3%, Caroline Goldrick was incredulous. On her street at the northern tip of Manhattan, her daughter’s elementary school doors were shuttered. Those of restaurants and gyms remained wide open. 

“It’s so backward. To be honest, when I stop and think about it, I almost start crying. I don’t get it. I don’t understand what the priority is here,” says Ms. Goldrick, a theater teacher and mother to a first grader in the public school system. 

The daily commute is the opposite for Uwe Berlo in Berlin. After he or his wife escort the kids to school, they can’t pop into a cafe for coffee or meet up with friends for a leisurely restaurant brunch. As German officials have nervously watched the country’s COVID-19 case count tick up toward 25,000 per day in recent weeks – with a countrywide positivity rate between 5% and 10% – their priorities in pandemic-management are clear. Restaurants, bars, and gyms have shuttered to fight the second wave, so that 2.8 million primary schoolchildren can remain in class learning. 

“The risk of not going to school is much bigger,” says Mr. Berlo, a crisis management business consultant in Berlin. “I think we [as a country] are differentiating between what we can fix with money, and those things that can’t be fixed with money,” he says. “Psychological problems can’t be fixed with money. It’s the right thing that schools are open.”

Decisions whether to open or close schools, like so much else during the pandemic, are a moving target. Best practices are still evolving and schools shift course as the virus does. 

Yet as case counts rise across Europe and North America, many districts in the United States have done the opposite of Europe: They’ve kept kids away from their classrooms since March – from Chicago to Los Angeles – even as nonessential businesses have stayed open. In Europe, where positivity rates in some countries far exceed the 3% threshold that originally sent New York City public school kids home, bars and indoor dining and other nonessential businesses have been re-shuttered to safeguard schools. 

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Certainly, many of the same challenges affect school systems across the globe. Unions battle for better safety measures, while many teachers feel as though they have no choice but to return to class, even if they feel unsafe. Parents everywhere worry – both about keeping their kids out of school and about putting them in.

But the decision-making around how and where American schoolchildren will spend their days has been affected by political polarization and a distrust of authorities that have made it harder to find consensus on responding to the pandemic, including education policy. A set of cultural values in the U.S. that emphasizes freedom and individual choice above all else has also undergirded decisions to open or close school. Whereas in Europe and Canada, the costs of rising inequality and a desire to keep social safety nets firmly in place have prompted authorities to implore society to do its job – by forgoing nonessential activities – to help keep schools open.

“During a crisis you have to ask yourself what is really important. On the question around reopening, do you open cinemas first or schools?” says Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. “These are values questions. Societies need to make tradeoffs between the present and the future, and they do that very differently.”

Still, some backtracking in the U.S. is happening. More Americans have started to push for schools to reopen – essentially asking states to shift priorities to improve conditions for doing this. New York City, which had opened with a hybrid model, only to close about two months later, announced earlier this week it will return some pre-kindergarten and elementary students to in-person learning starting on Dec. 7 and do away with the 3% positivity threshold for closing. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield has said that schools can operate with “face to face learning” and can do it “safely and they can do it responsibly.” Some U.S. school districts have had to delay reopening plans due to surges in cases. Rhode Island recently chose to limit bar seating and close bowling alleys for a few weeks, while offering grants to business owners and keeping schools running – more along the lines of what Europe and Canada have done. 

“Education is a certified right”

Historically, the consequences of school closures can be long-lasting. A September OECD study estimated that students in grades 1 through 12 affected by closures in 2020 could expect an average 3% lower income over their lifetimes. 

The most affected will be students who are most disadvantaged in the first place, says Harry Patrinos, practice manager at the World Bank’s education global practice. From the Spanish flu of 1918-1920 to World War II, losses have been traced decades later. “I worry that the longterm impact is going to be huge,” he says. “Past crises like influenza of 1918 and other catastrophes had lifetime impacts.”

In March when the pandemic was declared, 1.6 billion children around the world were sent home as schools shuttered. It was during spring and summer, when nations turned to the task of planning and prioritizing and seeking to strengthen social trust through the process, that educational paths diverged. 

For Germany the goals were clear from the beginning – even if the path to reopening was not without emotion or debate.

“Education is a certified right in Germany. We are an industrialized country and have relatively few natural resources, so we need professional workers who have a sensible education,” says Norman Heise, the elected chairman of the Parents’ Committee in Berlin, which represents the families of about 330,000 schoolchildren in the capital city.

For a wealthy country, Germany has a low level of digitization in schools, with only a third of children having access to online learning, well below the OECD average of 54%. German schoolchildren’s access to computers is also below the OECD benchmark. 

This, coupled with the government’s longtime focus on mitigating educational inequality, factored into the federal government-level decision to keep schools open. The heads of Germany’s 16 states, who are responsible for delivering education, might disagree on the extent to which economies should be shut down, or the logistics of keeping schools open, but agree on the importance of getting kids into classrooms.

School closings potentially exacerbate all kinds of social problems for children, from experiencing more domestic violence to falling behind because they lack access to Wi-Fi or laptops. For some children, schools provide their only hot meal of the day, or a safe space to interact with adults outside the family. Concern that educational inequalities would widen even further is a major factor in German decision-making, says Guido Küssner, an educational consultant at the German online school Wilhelm von Humboldt. Public school closures could drive parents with resources to devise their own workarounds, including enrolling in private schools or employing tutors. “There’s a real fear of ‘privatization,’” says Mr. Küssner.

What’s next in the U.S.?

In the U.S., there are few doubts that the pandemic will accelerate privatization of education in the country – intensifying a debate that is deeply polarized there. 

Public education was a foundation of the nation from its inception, says Derek W. Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina in his new book “Schoolhouse Burning.” The federal government underwrote public education and forced states to provide for it in their own constitutions – to guarantee and shield it from the political process.

But the ideals of an education for all have never been realized. A history of exclusion and segregation still manifests in stubborn racial and socioeconomic inequalities today, while the American localized approach leads to a patchwork of standards. And many believe the privatization of education – which has gathered force since the Ronald Reagan administration – has made the system more vulnerable during the pandemic, which will in turn accelerate the trend. 

“Today we talk about education as though it’s a commodity rather than a constitutional commitment. And now we are shrinking our obligation to it in ways we never have before,” says Dr. Black. “We talk about the importance of education but the implementation and reality of that commitment is far more difficult because the stock market and the unemployment rate rule America in a way that it doesn’t necessarily rule the rest of the world.”

The federal government has given school boards little guidance. And with misinformation surrounding the pandemic fairly common, distrust over how to respond has influenced local districts and teachers unions. Initially, unions were behind some of the push to keep schools closed. Even where state governors have prioritized school openings, the community spread of the virus makes that logistically tenuous. 

In New York City, where some schools are set to reopen Monday, parents are keenly aware the system could close back down at any moment. Some, like Ms. Goldrick, who opted to keep her daughter in virtual classes because she doesn’t trust the safety of sending her back, is now considering pulling her out altogether and homeschooling instead. “She’s sitting in front of a screen for five hours a day, which is terrible,” she says. “It starts to affect her attitude towards school, which is something that’s really hard to watch.”

It’s not that the situation is seamless for parents and teachers anywhere, including Germany. Silke Steltner, a public school teacher in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, uses a pseudonym because she’s gotten threats for speaking out against school reopenings. She says she has teacher friends who are high-risk or live with high-risk family members. 

“We teachers are being sacrificed for the economy,” says Ms. Steltner. “It’s more about the working population being able to continue working. So we are a bit like nannies.” 

“Are we doing this the right way?”

Yet despite those universal concerns, Mr. Schleicher of the OECD says collaboration, not confrontation, has led countries like Germany to functioning academic fall terms while many places in the U.S. are still flailing.

The U.S. spends above the average of its peers in education but it neither values teachers enough – financially or intellectually – nor treats the school system as the heart of society, he says. In China, or Singapore, or northern Europe, various actors have together grappled with the school question during the pandemic, whereas in the U.S. decision-making has become commodified and siloed. “It makes you a customer rather than a participant in the process,” he says. “Where the social fabric of education is stronger, they are managing a lot better in this crisis.”

Robert Pianta, dean of the school of education and human development at the University of Virginia, says this crisis has laid bare where America’s failings lie. “It has definitely exposed weaknesses, in the same way 9-11 exposed the weaknesses in our homeland security,” he says. “I would hope that we are able to sit back and ask, ‘Are we doing this the right way?’ and double down on our efforts to dedicate ourselves to ‘harden’ that system.”

In Germany, those questions were already settled. Decision-making has been driven by research that shows children and young people are not the driving force behind the pandemic. Nationwide, infection figures have remained low in schools, with the education policy officials highlighting the need for public cooperation. People have a responsibility to restrict private lives and meetings with friends so that “our children and young people can get the education they are entitled to,” announced Stefanie Hubig, president of the conference of ministers of education and cultural affairs, in late October. “This is our educational policy, but it is also our task for society as a whole.”


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