The Costs Aren’t Worth It: Open Schools

Michael Fisher
6 min readOct 23, 2020

I’m flying for the first time in eight months. Everyone on the plane wears a mask, but everything else is as I remember. Prior to departure my main concern was getting a cup of coffee in the nearly empty terminal at SFO. This took some doing since the first kiosk I went to was closed. I made it back to the gate just in time for boarding. Walking briskly, carrying too many things as usual, I hoped more than anything that the flight attendant wouldn’t try to check my oversized carry-on.

The old comforts of air travel set in as soon as I made it to my seat. With coffee in hand, I read the New Yorker till just after take-off, then opened my journal to start writing. In the row ahead of me, on a fellow passenger’s screen, I see a CNN alert that cases are surging in the U.S. and Europe. When I pause to listen, I hear the subtle sounds of sneezes and coughs, sniffles all around me. But how much is benign and how much potentially lethal?

None of us knows our chances of contracting the virus on this or another flight today. So we rely on simple assumptions that proved reliable in the past. Air travel must be reasonably safe. It would seem less so if CNN were airing a report of a recent plane crash and called that BREAKING NEWS. So we remember to stay calm.

Is it a certainty that I’m more likely to catch the coronavirus on this flight than have it go down in flames? Who knows the variables involved? There must be a statistician out there who can compute all this into a viable model of risk assessment. But that statistician is unavailable.

We’re certainly in some danger right now, much more than if we stayed home. But who wants to do that forever? My fiancée and I decided it was time to take a trip. Not a necessary one, but a leisurely one. By plane! So I’m eating the pancake sandwich we packed carefully this morning, lifting then replacing my mask after each bite.

This feels normal, almost. At the very least it feels tolerable. I don’t feel afraid as I write these words. Yet many people I know would be terrified sitting in my seat. Some of them may have more reason to feel afraid, if their risk of serious illness from Covid-19 is higher than mine is. I wonder if the risk of irrational fear may also run higher than usual these days. Is it possible that the costs of this fear aren’t worth the benefits of feeling safer?

We’re all fumbling in the dark; some of us just happen to be in the air, or at sea, or in remote compounds where everyone gets tested haphazardly.

There’s no great cost of not traveling, of sheltering in place as we were told to do months ago. But the cumulative social costs of blunt-instrument, possibly irrational fear are adding up.

The shuttering of many small businesses is one measure. Yet the most devastating — and the one people on all sides of the political spectrum should be able to agree on — is the prolonged delay in opening schools.

After months of preparation and a detailed inspection, my private middle school in San Francisco just got clearance from the city to reopen in two weeks. Meanwhile, SFUSD, like many public school districts in the U.S., is asking students and families to keep waiting.

“In order for SFUSD to reopen school buildings for in-person instruction,” the district’s website says, “the City needs to meet certain public health indicators.” These include “an adequate testing plan, staff training, students and families informed of protocols, a minimum of three months of PPE for all participating staff and students, and labor agreements.”

Reopening, in other words, is a long way off. So while the mostly affluent students at my school get to return to in-person learning soon, students who rely on city and state governments will continue receiving an inadequate, radically unequal education for the foreseeable future.

In an article published jointly by Propublica and the New Yorker, Alec MacGillis follows the experience of a single Black student in East Baltimore as the pandemic lays his education to waste. Shemar is a bright 12-year-old from a poor family who excelled in school before the shift to online learning. This fall, he is often home alone with little food in the house, playing video games all day while his teachers and administrators debate how and when to reopen schools in his district. Despite the good intentions of many parties to this debate, Shemar’s fate is the new reality for many of the country’s most vulnerable students. “After a summer of renewed attention on the disparities facing Black people,” MacGillis writes, “millions of Black children would not be getting in-person education.”

As has been widely noted since the spring, the travesty of distance learning is most pronounced for financially precarious families who depend on schools for many basic services. This inequity is underscored by the current demographics of school reopenings in the U.S. As Ross Douthat wrote recently in the New York Times, this fall “approximately half of white kids have access to in-person school, compared with just about a quarter of African-American and Hispanic students.”

There’s an argument to be made for waiting to reopen schools until there is better infrastructure to protect teachers in particular. This discussion is still happening at my school, and not all teachers feel safe coming back. But most of us feel we have no other choice. We have to retain families who might choose to pay tuition elsewhere if we don’t reopen. Otherwise, we might have to close for good.

I feel complicit in the logic that effectively makes some lives and futures more valuable than others. But this is really just another reminder that we’ve been operating as a tiered society for a long time.

When the pandemic struck, the evidence of inequity began to pile up in more visible ways than before. Many have decried it, yet most of us remain fixated on our own narrow interests in obvious ways.

Schools are a stark example. But the signs that we as a country, Democrats and Republicans all, care more about ourselves and those closest to us than those most in need of care has accumulated to the point that it seems there’s no alternative, if there ever was one.

It shouldn’t have to be said that the root is economics and the realities of social class. But these realities are so easily obscured.

On this flight, I can afford to think of myself as a good consumer. The market and its ability to create functional adaptations has made it possible for me to take a vacation while presumably managing risk. Everyone opts into this arrangement by choice, of course. And it appears to work for those of us who do. (I have to get a Covid test before returning to school, and I’m pretty sure I’ll pass.)

Why can’t we create similar adaptations where less immediate profit is involved? Is it really a surprise that many private schools are coping through the pandemic while most public schools are barely skating by?

The lasting social costs of neglecting millions of children and families in the name of a questionable short-term safety is monstrous by any calculus. Yet nothing seems to change for the most vulnerable members of our society.

It’s been said many times that the only recovery worth wanting from this pandemic is one that corrects the lasting inequities currently exacerbated by the lack of a coordinated government response.

Joe Biden’s campaign slogan to “Build Back Better” may express this intention. Or it may be another empty promise.

Whatever happens this November, I’m going to try to remember Shemar when I’m back with my 12-year-old students in-person.

Why shouldn’t he be there with us?

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Michael Fisher

Writer, teacher, recovering academic. After finishing my PhD in American history, I moved to San Francisco in 2016. This blog tells the story.