19 August 2020

Homestressing, Homeschooling: The Pitfalls of US Reopenings

Some US schools will succeed in staying open until the end of the calendar year; many, most likely, will not. The failure of the US to control the COVID-19 pandemic at-large, though, will be a more decisive factor than individual school choices, or student behaviour.

By Paul Mutter

For any organisational plan to succeed, it must account for whether or not people are capable or willing to buy into it. While a majority of Americans have adapted to the crisis and accepted restrictions in their daily lives, combating a pandemic is not like combating an army. The old adage that a maximum of 10 percent of soldiers do 90 percent of the fighting in war is not applicable to a public health crisis. Social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing are not stackable or short-term. The route to success is one where 90 percent of people put in the minimum 10 percent effort over an extended period of time.

Most schools in the United States (US) simply do not have the people, processes or physical resources to achieve this and restart in-person classes in the fall. The larger and overriding problem is that the COVID-19 pandemic remains too widespread nationwide for a safe reopening, something beyond the schools' power to control. But the schools themselves face a host of unique challenges that they have for the most part unsuccessfully and incompletely engaged with ahead of reopening.

Even with the most stringent of precautions, there will not be a pre-pandemic "return to normalcy" for the 2020-2021 school year, merely the fleeting appearance of one, varying greatly across school districts in the country. Half-days, every-other-days and every-other-weeks still leave parents having to account for their children for some of their workday. Loss of early-morning programs and after-school activities pose special issues for parents working extended or irregular hours.

College students, in particular, will be asked to refrain from social interactions in settings that lack enforcement mechanisms to ensure social distancing and are extremely conducive to such interactions. Informing them that their failure to comply will mean everyone loses out requires an appeal to their best nature that overrides real human needs for social interactions and propensity for instant gratification. Where enforcement mechanisms can be implemented, schools will have to consider the psychological impact of putting people in situations comparable to life in a religious order, public institution or barracks. Even those who volunteer for such things must be put through extensive training in order to cope with living a cloistered, regimented life and not crack under the pressure.

Lacking the lead time that is needed to be established in the spring and summer, schools facing outbreaks will be unable to quickly shift to contingency plans - outdoor spaces, small cohorts, contact tracing, hiring sprees - in the fall and winter. While there will be much lecturing and moralising, expecting undergraduate students - who, for all intents and purposes, are still children - to do a better job judging risk than adults is not realistic when "the adults in the room" have also been unable to control the pandemic.

If the situation deteriorates and further quarantines and closures take place, strained relationships among administrators, politicians, parents and teachers will make it harder to reverse such setbacks. Threats to withhold funding or withdraw students from public institutions will have little impact if these schools are already compelled to close or begin registering infections among the faculty, staff or student body. And, in any event, private schools and tutors cannot easily scale up to meet new demand since their own schedules, finances, infrastructure and attendance numbers have been locked in. Every party will threaten the other, but none of the threats will actually change reality.

The end result will be a return to unpopular and less productive distance learning. The economic impact will be most felt by parents forced to choose between work and teaching their children themselves, while ancillary businesses in towns and cities dependent on college and high school sports will take major hits, as will the athletic programs themselves. Such businesses will suffer in any event due to restrictions in place; failure to reopen, or reopening and closing back down, will make the situation much worse, however. The psychological impact will be most felt by parents and students once again forced to work out some kind of plan, while demoralizing and demonizing teachers, who will be easy targets for politicians to scapegoat.

Paul Mutter is a US-based political and security risk analyst covering Middle East and North Africa.