Betsy DeVos, US education secretary, speaking at the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge. She has said that schools that do not open should not get their federal funding. © AP

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​As the Great Reopening has turned into a new Covid-19 case spike in many parts of the US, with states like Florida now mirroring Wuhan at its worst, there is a political battle brewing about whether and how to restart American primary and secondary schools in the autumn. 

President Donald Trump has, of course, been pressing for a full-scale reopening for economic reasons, and probably for psychological ones, too — he would dearly love to pretend that all is well in advance of November’s election, even as southern and western states are becoming, in the words of one reader who emailed me recently, “a dumpster fire”. Betsy DeVos, education secretary, piled into the debate a few days ago and threatened that schools that don’t open shouldn’t get their federal funding.

​The threats are probably just that — it would be a real legal battle to actually pull school funds. ​But the left has predictably risen to the bait, with some claiming that reopening schools at all is life-threatening.

​It has come as no surprise to Swampians that the truth — and the best practice — lies somewhere in the middle. There are risks to reopening, yes. But as countries like Sweden have shown us, they are manageable.

​Smaller children are not at excessive risk of getting sick, and even teens, who have been thought to be superspreaders, can be protected with proper protocols like mask wearing and distancing. In my son’s high school, as in many other New York City schools, there are plans to split kids into pods and have staggered schedules that keep only half in school buildings at any one time.

​That’s good news, because the truth is that distance learning hasn’t worked. ​Fewer than half of schools are even taking attendance. ​Academic competency and test scores are falling. Reading rates have fallen off a cliff. Ed, as you mentioned in your TikTok piece last week, screen time is up, too. I’m curious your views on how remote education has played out in your household — do you feel your daughter has fallen behind? My own experience, as I’ve written before, is that there is a very wide division between how particular schools have been able to manage the situation.

​The truth is that as poorly as some schools are set up to handle things in the Covid era, they are probably going to do a better job than day care facilities, or parents at home. Forty per cent of the country has school-age children — that means that there are a whole lot of parents whose productivity is going to be cut if kids don’t go back to class. Thankfully, both my kids are heading to schools in the autumn that are taking ideas from international best practices to try and create a reasonably safe environment. If Mr Trump and Ms DeVos really care about America’s children, they’d help others do the same instead of threatening them.

Recommended reading

  • ​If you haven’t already done so, you must immediately download and read/listen to Mary Trump’s book on her uncle Donald. ​The details and the psychological insight are truly stunning. I listened to it in one go.

  • Like so many Americans I was saddened by the death of veteran congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, memorialised here by the New Yorker’s David Remnick.

  • ​This article in The Information, by Sam Lessin, a former vice-president of product management at Facebook, takes a fascinating look at the inherent tensions between the physical and virtual worlds, and how the battle between the two will shape the future.

  • ​A look at the graphic in this FT piece on the coming consolidation in digital media tells you why charging for high-quality content is the only way forward for news organisations.

  • For those C-suite media buyers who have any doubt about who holds power in the advertising landscape today, read Hannah Murphy’s fascinating feature on Facebook’s ad guru Carolyn Everson. ​I found this quote particularly telling:

​Rishad Tobaccowala, a senior adviser to Publicis who spoke to the Financial Times in a personal capacity, said of the industry’s relationship with Facebook more generally: “You’re being treated well, you’re getting taken out to dinner . . . [but] you’ll get grief if you speak out. “Sometimes there’s a bullying aspect to it . . . Since when did any company tell another company [to toe] their party line?” 

  • ​And finally, for those of you who want to know what it was like to work in journalism when it was still elegant and glamorous, read my former Newsweek colleague Barbie Nadeau’s obituary of Christopher Dickey, the legendary foreign correspondent that we both had the great privilege of working with in Europe. ​Chris was best of breed, smart and funny as hell, and I was lucky to know him.

Edward Luce responds

Rana, it’s hard to dispute that online learning is a very poor substitute for face-to-face school. Studies on this have been pretty clear. The typical K-12 student will only have 70 per cent of the reading ability they would have had after a normal academic year, and roughly 50 per cent of the mathematical skills. That’s the story for the average child. For the less advantaged ones it’s far worse. Roughly 12m American kids — almost a quarter of the total — have inadequate broadband and have difficulty following classes or completing homework online. Others are in crowded and noisy home environments where it’s hard to concentrate.

Every time I give a talk on Zoom I get an idea how hard it must be for a teacher to read the classroom. In person, you can adjust to the body language. On Zoom it is almost impossible to measure the mood. Many of the kids in my daughter’s classes turn off their videos so they can’t be seen. If online schooling continues for another semester, let alone a full year, the damage to children’s cognitive abilities could be life-long. 

American society should be doing everything it can to restart in-person classes next month. That means giving education districts enough money to keep their premises sanitised, provide teachers with protective gear and produce staggered calendars that align with social distancing. It shouldn’t be that hard for a country with America’s resources to pull off. Unfortunately there’s an ideological stand-off conspiring to make things much harder than it should be.

On one extreme you have the teachers’ unions saying school reopenings will endanger teachers’ lives. On the other you have the Trump administration saying it will penalise schools that don’t reopen. In practise, the financial aid Betsey DeVos and Donald Trump can withhold is marginal. Also the unions are overstating the dangers. If Congress gives schools enough funding, which is a big if, they can be reopened safely, albeit with reduced class time. What I fear for many districts is the worst of both worlds — unsafely reopened schools with many teachers refusing to turn up.

Dostoyevsky famously said that the measure of a civilised country is how it treats its criminals. I’d add children to that measure. If other countries can safely reopen their schools, America has no excuse for truancy. 

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘The fate of TikTok and US-China relations’:
“As many have pointed out, one way to think about ‘cancel culture’ is to replace the term with ‘criticism’ — itself a valid form of free speech. It’s also worth examining the power differential between those complaining about cancel culture and those practicing it, especially given the term’s origins in black culture. The signers of the Harper’s letter are by and large people with large platforms in no danger of actually being cancelled. What they’re annoyed about is that their audience, which previously had to passively accept their takes, now have a mechanism for clapping back.” — Steven Robinson, North Andover, Massachusetts

In response to ‘The fuss about JK Rowling’:
“Certainly, it is not difficult to think of arguments that violate liberal notions of decency. In that case it is not a matter of refusing to hear views we disagree with, but rather a matter of whether it is proper for a mainstream publication to provide a platform for extreme illiberal views.” — Amit A. Pandya, Silver Spring, Maryland

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