This week too many students, teachers, and staff will be returning to schools. They’ll be returning to schools even though we are in the middle of a pandemic, in the worst stage of the pandemic, only ten days removed from mass infection events called Christmas gatherings, and less than four days removed from mass infection events called New Year’s Eve gatherings.

All indicators point toward closing schools

All indicators point toward closing schools

Austin Public Health (APH) moved to risk stage level five on December 23rd, the worst stage possible, meaning there is “widespread uncontrolled transmission threatening our healthcare infrastructure.” It’s only gotten worse since then. The positivity rate in Travis County is over 12%, the 7 day moving average of new cases is 505, and the 7 day moving average of new hospital admissions is 74. In spite of the widespread uncontrolled transmission of the disease, and despite the APH recommending that schools consider going virtual for at least two weeks after the holiday break, all of the major school districts in Central Texas are reopening this week. Most of the private schools, as well.

Central Texas schools have waived the white flag of surrender. But why?

The pressure to reopen schools is overwhelming. Public schools fear losing state funding, and private schools fear losing tuition dollars. The Texas Education Agency requires that public schools must provide on-campus instruction options for students, and the Governor of Texas has mandated that there be no occupancy limits placed on public or private schools. Without limitations imposed by the state, schools have largely been unwilling to go up against politicians, business interests, and parents who are increasingly demanding that schools remain open.

But shouldn’t schools simply choose people over profits? Well why should they? They do not benefit institutionally from unilaterally closing. The benefits to broader society would be at their expense (financially or as a going concern). They would help slow the transmission of Covid-19, but without a societal effort to rein in the spread, their closures would be insufficient to stop the spread. Without a unified effort among public schools, the schools would not be able to force the state to give them the funds needed to pay their expenses. And without a unified effort among private schools, the schools that close would lose enrollment to schools that remain open.

So surrendering to Covid-19 is better than financial insolvency, right?

No. It is not. Schools should choose to prioritize public health over the demands of parents, business interests, and the state. Schools should choose people over profits.

Schools like to take credit for training students to be critical thinkers, and training students to become moral citizens. Schools like to promote the racist and classist claim that they are often “the only safe place” for many children. This summer many schools proudly proclaimed that they believe that Black Lives Matter. How can they reconcile such claims with the decision to reopen schools?

Critical thinkers would be able to work out that schools are not magical environments where the disease chooses not to spread. Critical thinkers understand that if bringing groups of people together indoors for extended periods of time is unsafe during a pandemic, then that includes the schoolhouse. Critical thinkers understand that Covid-19 does not have a 99.97% survival rate, that children are able to contract the disease and spread it even if they do so at lower rates, that adults also work in school environments, and that most people in the school environment have family members or housemates that they go home to.

Moral citizens would temporarily put aside profit seeking to stop a pandemic that has already killed 350,000 Americans, and will most certainly have killed over 400,000 by the end of January. Moral citizens would embrace the idea of minor personal sacrifice such as masking and staying home as much as possible over the next several months in order to save perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives, so that we could allow the vaccine rollout to move us toward herd immunity before reopening everything. Moral citizens would acknowledge the reasonable needs of others and accommodate them, instead of demanding that they have a right to do as they please, no matter the costs.

Schools are where people gather with those outside of their household

Schools are where people gather with those outside of their household

A safe place for children during a pandemic means a place where they do not need to fear contracting Covid-19. And even if they do not fear it, it means a place where a child does not need to run an elevated risk of catching the disease. A safe place for children is a place that does not allow them to take the disease home to family members who will contract the disease. A safe place for children is a place where the adults they care about are not put in a position where they have to choose between life or employment.

And if Black Lives Matter then schools would not be ignoring the demands of the majority of Black families who do not believe schools should be open. If Black Lives Matter then schools would recognize the disproportionate toll the pandemic has had on Black people because of the racial injustices that are baked into the economy, the health sector, and government services.

Now is not the time to waive the white flag of surrender. Now is the time for the schools of Central Texas, public and private, to fight back. Now is the time to fight for the health and welfare of students, teachers, and staff. It’s time to fight for the health and welfare of the families and household members of students, teachers, and staff, even if they don’t appreciate it. Now is the time to fight for public health so that we can bring the pandemic under control to prevent needless suffering and death. If all the schools opt out of in-person schooling during this period of widespread, uncontrolled community spread then we can win this fight. But that will take a lot of courage from school leaders.


Cover photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash