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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Five Thoughts on the Coronavirus and Schools

By Rick Hess — March 16, 2020 3 min read

The coronavirus has upended our lives. It’s closing schools, colleges, and offices; causing panicked shoppers to clean out grocery stores; and battering the economy. Now, I know nothing about epidemiology or public health. But the impact on schooling has been enormous, and that is an area I know something about. So, a few thoughts.

First, it’s a lousy time to be ferociously second-guessing school leaders making impossible decisions. Schools serving half the nation’s kids have closed for weeks to come, and many more will do so in the coming days. The decision about whether to shutter schools is an emotional one. All you need to do is peruse social media and parent listserves to see parents tearing into school leaders for closing schools—or for failing to do so. As I noted last week, this is a time when snark can yield bad decisions and even cost lives:

When you needn't balance the needs of thousands of children and families, it's easy to mock the decisions made by those who do. But this can have real costs. It makes it tougher for leaders to bring competing factions together to work out solutions. It makes leaders defensive and less likely to fully weigh all the factors at work—especially those considerations which are hard for those on the outside to see or appreciate.

Second, the leadership by some, and lack thereof by others, has reminded me of a problem with the kind of behavior schools teach children to value and emulate. The Trump administration’s response to the virus was chaotic and inept. Meanwhile, Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is quickly becoming a folk hero because he appears to be honest, credible, and capable. Yet, in schools, I worry about how little we today seem to talk about the Faucis of the world or the import of competence and character. Instead, it often feels like we’ve chosen to celebrate passion, politicians, and political activists, and that has carried a steep price. Part of what educators do is model values and teach kids what matters, and I find myself thinking that we need to do far better.

Third, these disruptions will impose massive costs on schools, colleges, students, and families, but we don’t really know what those will look like. There are many potential, hard-to-estimate costs—all dependant on whether and when schools even reopen this spring—for everything from distance education to helping disconnected students get online to getting lunches to kids. To take just one example, if we hypothetically assume that many schools will restart sometime in April, they’ll surely be looking at exceptional levels of teacher absenteeism through the spring. If an extra 5 percent of teachers are absent each day for eight weeks, due to illness, self-quarantine, or the need to care for a loved one, that’s perhaps an extra 100,000 to 150,000 substitute teachers a day. At $100 each per day, that’s something like $400 or $500 million. Add janitorial overtime, closure-related disruptions, and other costs, and it’s easy to envision an unplanned-for hit of $1 billion or more. But are those numbers even in the general ballpark? We just don’t know.

Fourth, this is a lousy time for a “business as usual” attitude. We all need to sacrifice and cooperate. That gets a lot harder when it looks like someone else is trying to use a crisis to push a personal or political agenda. This means that fiscally prudent policymakers shouldn’t treat this as a moment to grandstand or nickel-and-dime schools and colleges. It also means, though, that school leaders and advocates would do well not to treat this crisis as a cash piñata. The same goes for the hucksters and PR hacks who’ve been busy using COVID-19 as an excuse to pitch and promote their wares—for everything from virtual schooling to SAT prep.

Finally, I keep seeing the coronavirus referred to as a “black swan” event for schools and colleges. That’s not quite right. This was a wholly predictable crisis given our history with SARS, MERS, and H1NI. As my AEI colleague Jim Pethokoukis put it,

The phrase "black swan" gained currency a decade ago during the Great Recession and aftermath. It provided a compelling way of thinking about the simultaneous crises in banking and housing. Those economic shocks elevated investor and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb to global celebrity . . . From his 2007 book: "First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility."

Pethokoukis noted that the coronavirus “is a bad fit for Taleb’s definition” because it wasn’t “an unpredictable outlier"—rather, it was a foreseeable crisis that we chose to ignore. There are other massive challenges ahead that we tune out or fail to confront. We know that climate change is bearing down on us. We know that Washington can’t borrow a trillion dollars a year indefinitely. We knew that China could spark a pandemic, and know that there will eventually be another—one potentially far deadlier. We don’t know when these things will happen. But it’s a safe bet that they eventually will. And, rather than seek ways to address them in measured, coalition-building ways, we seem to continually engage in wishful thinking (think, well, everyone on the national debt) and over-the-top posturing (hello Green New Deal). Addressing these challenges with foresight, maturity, and wisdom should not be a ridiculous charge for free, responsible adults in a land as rich as ours.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.