Why are U.S. schools open to start 2022, as 1 million citizens a day are testing positive for COVID?
In March of 2020, K-12 schools in the United States hastily transitioned to remote learning as COVID-19 swept across the country for the first time. In the months and years to follow, the U.S. became the world leader in COVID deaths. As of right now, more than 800,000 people have been killed by, and at least 55 million people have been infected with, COVID in the United States.1 That’s more than double the amount of infections recorded in the next most infected country of Brazil, whose president believes the pandemic is “a shameless… colossal and absurd campaign” against himself.2 The reason we are here is multifactorial. The purpose of this article is to review, in very simple terms, how the state-corporate complex has treated K-12 schools throughout the pandemic. Instead of counting cases or analyzing particular districts, we will paint with the broad brush of federal policy. Our observations lend themselves to an important conclusion, from which we can discern why U.S. schools must be open at any cost.
When schools pivoted to virtual classes in March 2020, shameful public infrastructure posed challenges for remote school children and teachers, especially in poor urban and rural communities where COVID is most likely to infect and kill people. For example, a diversity of poor students nationwide battled low bandwidth and some of the most expensive internet pricing in the so-called developed world, just for the chance to be present in class.3, 4, 5 On Tribal Lands and Reservations, where it is not profitable for private companies to sell communication services, thousands of students were unable to attend class virtually. Their experience of school was reduced to solitary assignments.6
Two months into remote learning, on May 25th, 2020, as the cumulative COVID case count in the United States was closing in on 2 million, then president Donald Trump tweeted “Schools in our country should be opened ASAP. Much very good information now available”, following former CEO Steven Hilton’s Fox Corporation broadcast.7 Most school buildings remained closed for the year as the novel coronavirus swirled.
On July 9th, 2020, in accordance with international scientific consensus, the World Health Organization acknowledged that coronavirus spreads through aerosols, especially in enclosed spaces over long periods of time “because aerosols remain suspended in the air”.8 The scientific community welcomed this development, but criticized the WHO for “saying now what we as scientists have been saying for the majority of this pandemic”.9 A few weeks later, during a summer peak of 75,000 daily COVID cases in the US, Bill Gates spoke to CNBC, a favorite channel of Wall Street, to argue that K-12 schools should reopen for the 20/21 school year because “the benefits outweigh the costs”.10 We know the costs are Human Lives lost to COVID. But what are the benefits for Bill Gates, who added 18 billion dollars to his net worth in 2020?11 Maybe they have something to do with his investments in for-profit ed-tech companies and charter schools, maybe not.12 We’ll keep that question in mind as we move further along our timeline.
In August 2020, many districts started the new school year with remote learning. In districts that returned to physical classrooms, multiple outbreaks were recorded within the first few weeks.13 Over the course of the fall semester, national positivity rates, hospitalizations, and deaths climbed day by day to all time highs, peaking in late January 2021, just as Joe Biden was inaugurated, with an average of more than 4,000 daily deaths. Riding both the descent of this record COVID wave and the ascent of Biden’s “100-day plan”, which pushed for a mass return to the classroom, the CDC released its school reopening guidelines in mid February 2021.14, 15 Right away, political and scientific commentators exposed suspect omissions in the CDC’s guide.16, 17
Most alarmingly, the words ‘aerosols’ and ‘airborne’ do not appear at all in the CDC’s documents but for paper titles in listed references. Secondarily, ‘ventilation’ appears only in a handful of ancillary sentences, whereas ‘physical distancing’, for example, headlines a whole section. Not even low tech improvements to ventilation as simple as opening classroom windows and doors were recommended in the CDCs guidelines (though they do suggest opening windows on buses). This came as a shock, because aerosols and ventilation were known to be critical factors in the spread of COVID long before the CDC’s school guidance was published.18 Teachers Unions were forced to fight for improved building ventilation systems on their own terms and individual schools and districts implemented open window requirements of their own. The CDC’s proposed prevention measures of hand washing, surface cleaning, masking, and social distancing function to stop the spread of COVID to the extent that it spreads only via droplets (particles that fall to the floor and on surfaces after coughs and sneezes) and not aerosols (airborne particles). Recall that more than 7 months earlier the World Health Organization acknowledged that COVID spreads via aerosols. As research out of MIT has shown, it is precisely because COVID spreads though aerosols that “in such well-mixed spaces [as classrooms], one is no safer from airborne pathogens at 60 ft than 6 ft”.19 Since COVID accumulates in an airspace overtime, two of the most effective ways to reduce the spread are to maximize the quality of the space’s ventilation and to minimize the amount of time people spend together in the space.20 In other words, it is impossible to eliminate the risk of COVID spreading in schools, since it is usually the case that a large number of students spend 6 or more hours together in an inadequately ventilated classroom over the course of a school day. But, because the CDC minimized aerosols and ventilation, their proposal to reopen schools appeared safe and effective.
As a result, millions of students returned to in-person learning in Spring of 2021. The CDC, which forced students and staff to frantically sanitize common objects when the risk of getting COVID from surfaces was known to be inconsequentially low 21, concertedly minimized established science in order to get students back into the classroom. Dr. Anthony Fauci himself conceded “we need to try and get the children back to school and that’s the goal of President Biden that in the next 100 days to get the K to eights back in school”.22 We now have two questions. Why does Bill Gates want schools open, and why does the federal government want schools open? If we don’t know already we only need to go a little further to find our answer.
Many districts that reopened their schools in Spring 2021 used hybrid models, where half of the students were in person and the others were projected onto a screen in the classroom. In such cases, the physical distance between students could comply with CDC guidance. Nevertheless, plenty of parents opted to keep their children at home. Teachers around the country were asked to return to the building prior to getting two doses of a vaccine, to teach virtual and in-person learners simultaneously. In March 2021, not long into hybrid learning, the CDC reduced its social distancing guidance in schools from 6 to 3 feet for children in the classroom.23 This amendment only applied to children in schools, not to the general public and not even to the teachers of these children.
While laypeople on all sides of U.S. politics found this new 3-feet-in-schools rule rather dubious (the right took it as proof that COVID posed little risk all along, and the left as proof that the CDC had ulterior motives), the corporate press aggressively marketed it. Take just one broadcaster, Jake Tapper on CNN. Earlier in February 2021 he read from a script to CDC director Rochelle Walensky:
I had high hopes that schools would be able to resume in person learning because so many scientists and health officials had been talking about the science supports opening the schools as soon as possible.24
Then, not a second after the studies suggesting 3-feet of social distance for K-12 students had emerged, Jake Tapper interviewed Dr. Fauci. Tapper manically lobbed Fauci a softball, whose arch traces the painfully obvious logic of the social distancing policy change: “But that six foot requirement, that’s one of the main hurdles to opening schools… Does this study suggest three feet is good enough?” Fauci replied “It does indeed, and that’s exactly the point I’m making.”25
Unsurprisingly, even though it quickly became clear that the new 3-feet rule was problematic in light of competing COVID variants (and again that ventilation was critical), the CDC did not backtrack.26, 27 Today, in January of 2022, they recommend “staying at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) from other people” outside of schools. Why does the CDC maintain that 3 feet is safe for children in school but continue to recommend 6 feet of distance for everyone else? Because there is not enough physical space in schools to accommodate in-person learning at a reasonable social distance of 6 feet. My hypothesis is as follows. The CDC ignored aerosols and ventilation in its reopening guidelines because schools could not have transitioned from remote to hybrid learning if they hadn’t. Subsequently, the CDC reduced social distancing guidelines from 6 to 3 feet because schools could not have transitioned from hybrid to full in-person instruction if they hadn’t.
I am a teacher. The small vent that circulates air out of my classroom is in a closet. My windows only open a few inches, but the air from outside makes the classroom too cold for students, who are required to take off their coats in order to display uniforms. My classroom could not physically hold all 26 students at 6 feet of distance.
The very next month, on May 7th 2021, the CDC acknowledged the airborne transmission of COVID:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised eyebrows late last week when the organization acknowledged that COVID-19 is also an airborne illness — information that has been suggested by the scientific community for nearly a year.28
Even Donald Trump, who is scientifically incompetent, “acknowledged that the coronavirus could be transmitted through the air” in a private interview with careerist bookseller Bob Woodward on February 7th, 2020, a year before the CDC.29 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a United States Federal Agency, waited a year to formally acknowledge this eminently important scientific fact about a pandemic that had to this point killed 600,000 U.S. citizens. Why? Perhaps because by this time the transition back to full in-person schooling was well underway; districts were not going to stop cramming students back into classrooms. The CDC’s late discovery of COVID aerosols was not reflected in updated school reopening guidelines. In major districts across the country a portion of families opted to keep their students at home for the rest of the school year. Not fast enough, summer break 2021 arrived.
For a second think back one year to July 6th 2020. On this day two noteworthy things happened. President Donald Trump tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” and “the Florida Department of Education issued an emergency order requiring all schools to reopen in August, to facilitate ‘a return to Florida hitting its full economic stride.’”30 Now fast forward one year and nearly half a million COVID deaths later, to July 11th, 2021. Returning to our timeline. As the highly infectious Delta Variant was circulating through the U.S. population over the summer with increasing success , Dr. Fauci, working under President Joe Biden, told ABC that even though social distancing is something you want to pay attention to in school, “if you can’t implement [it], you should still do everything you can with testing… do everything you can to keep the in-person classes going.” “The bottom line”, he explained, “is we need to get the children back in school, in-person classes in the fall.”31, 32
The 21/22 school year started with most K-12 public schools opened for in-person classes. The White House published a press release 5 months into the school year on December 2nd, 2021, one day after the first confirmed case of the Omicron Variant in the US, subtitled “New Actions Aim to Get Americans Boosted for Even Greater Protection Against the Delta and Omicron Variants, Keep Schools and Businesses Open, and Help Quickly Respond to Surges if Needed During the Colder Months.” In the document the word ‘school’ appears 30 times, with 12 of those appearances occurring in the context of “keeping schools open”. Also in the release, the Biden Administration boasts “When the President came into office, more than half the schools in our country were closed. Today, 99 percent of schools across the country are fully open and in person” and warns “with the tools, guidance, and resources the Administration has provided, schools should not have to close due to COVID-19.”33 How could they know whether schools will be safe into the future?
On December 27th, 2021, with the U.S. day after day breaking COVID records with respect to positivity rates, cases, and hospitalizations due to Omicron, the CDC reduced the 10-day quarantine period to 5. It was immediately obvious to everyone that this change was not motivated by science. The working public heavily criticized this move in class- and anti-capitalist terms, especially on social media.34 Indeed, there is no reason the CDC’s motivation shouldn’t be obvious to everyone. Dr. Fauci plainly stated it,
that there is the danger that there will be so many people who are being isolated who are asymptotic for the full ten days that you could have a major negative impact on our ability to keep society running. So the decision was made, although it’s not completely risk free, of saying let’s get that cut in half… so that 50% of the time people can actually be out with a mask in society.
So that 50% of the time people can actually be working, he means: seeing as “the CDC’s decision [came] days after Delta Airline’s CEO sent [CDC director] Walensky a letter advocating for a shorter isolation period”.35 This time the CDC didn’t even try to hide their operative reasoning. If not for this reduced quarantine period, schools and businesses would be forced to temporarily close for a lack of workers (some have closed despite it). This is a purely economic move. Does Dr. Fauci not know that entire countries have shutdown for weeks at a time and survived?36 Why did the Pentagon, one day later on December 28th, instruct its employees to work from home through January?37 Why is max workplace occupancy set at 40% for pentagon personnel and 100% for disadvantaged school-children? The US, whose annual military budget exceeds three quarters of a trillion dollars, can surely afford to pay workers to stay home to slow the spread of Omicron. There are numerous historical and global precedents, but even if there were not, it’d be a reasonable expectation.
I’m writing this on January 3rd, 2022, to start the new year. I’m writing after teaching a full day in-person with a co-teacher whose whole household is COVID positive, but whose single state supplied at-home rapid test read negative on Sunday; after covering a lunch period – in which students eat together unmasked in their classroom – for an immunocompromised teacher who quit before winter break; after teaching less than half of my students in-person, because some are out with COVID and others have immediate family members who are sick, at risk of severe illness, or just concerned for theirs and their child’s safety (I’m editing this on January 4th, after teaching a further reduced class because one of yesterday’s in-person students tested positive for COVID). Students were greeted this morning after winter break to even stricter COVID rules surrounding masking, distancing, walking, talking, and playing in PE and at recess. These restrictions can’t be easy for children, who at home can at least eat, talk, and walk around with some degree of freedom. One student responded to the Principal’s morning message, after eating a silent unmasked breakfast in the classroom, “If you are actually concerned for our safety why don’t we just do remote?” Another said they were afraid to be in-person because of COVID. An unvaccinated and infected parent asked for a week’s worth of work for their unvaccinated and infected child. There are students who attend daily healthcare appointments for their sick caretakers, who may be on dialysis, may have suffered a recent stroke, or may be otherwise debilitated. At dismissal students are sent home with their grandparents. These are true statements, not listed for dramatic effect. I’m personally fortunate to go home to healthy family members. I appreciate however, just how terrible COVID can be for students and staff, especially when there is a low rate of vaccination among them and in their community. Not to mention the rising rates of child hospitalizations.38
On January 1, 2022, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reaffirmed the position of the U.S. Government “We’ve been very clear: Our expectation is for schools to be open full-time for students for in-person learning”.39 In harmony, red and blue state governors publicly declared that their school districts will remain open for in-person learning this winter at all costs.40 Democrat governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, even passed a law that allows the state to use non-teaching staff as substitutes for the rest of the year.41 Meanwhile, K-12 schools in Denmark and Canada, countries with significantly higher rates of vaccination and lower per capita case counts, have temporarily shifted to remote learning. Because a small number of schools in the United States have had to go remote, Secretary Cardona was forced to clarify that
any decisions on very short-term or emergency closures are most likely based off of staffing issues, and ultimately those are safety issues when you don’t have adequate staff, but the goal is full time in-person learning for our students.
“They’ve suffered enough”, he adds.
By January 3, 2022, the U.S. will surpass 1 million daily COVID infections. About 80% of the nation’s ICU beds will be occupied amid unprecedented hospital staff shortages.42 Cases will continue to rise.
I’m not convinced schools are truly safe for students right now, but I can conceive of the possible world, which may or may not be actual, in which they are safer than homes. Admittedly, I have been surprised by the low number of cases that could be traced between students in my class. Except, it’s hard to know who has it and where they got it from. Quite possibly the incalculable detriments of remote school, ranging from hunger and domestic abuse to social isolation and learning loss, outweigh the risks of COVID for students and their immediate families. (Although, I don’t know what ‘learning loss’ ultimately means, as popular as the phrase is. Merely lower test scores?) And sure, vaccines are reassuringly effective at preventing severe disease for now, but many U.S. families, who, by the way, were taught science in our all-of-the-sudden preeminently revered K-12 U.S. classrooms, are unvaccinated. It is also the case that for thousands of students in this country remote school is safer, and not just from COVID. As public buildings such as schools deteriorate, occupants risk exposure to dangerous chemicals, carcinogens, air and water pollutants, such as lead in drinking fountains and PCBs in florescent lights.43, 44, 45 Relatedly, more non-white than white parents prefer remote learning for their children.46 I’d wager that this statistic has to do with their relatively higher risk of contracting, being hospitalized with, and dying from, COVID-19.
The World Socialist Website and Teachers Unions have tracked the problems of COVID in the classroom since the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S. Most recently, the Chicago Teachers Union has fought for a 2 week period of remote work to begin the new year. It would be very hard to argue that a short, 2 weeks of remote learning, while Omicron reaches its infectious peak, would cost students more than it would benefit them.
Throughout the pandemic, it has not been an easy problem, whether to keep schools open or to hold classes virtually. There are merits and demerits to both sides. My unqualified survey of the science puts my analysis at risk, which is why I refrain from discussing it here. Maybe the CDC stands on sturdy epidemiological ground. But they should not be motivated by politics or economics to any degree. Some problems are easy. For instance, whether to carefully explain to the tens of millions of stakeholders that the risk of contracting COVID in a classroom may not be insignificant. In my estimation the CDC has failed to solve this professional and moral problem. Instead, the U.S. government has dishonestly assured us that classrooms are safe in order to open, and keep open, schools. But why?
To the extent we can argue that one, the CDC ignored aerosols and ventilation in its reopening guidelines because schools could not have transitioned from remote to hybrid learning if they hadn’t; two, the CDC reduced physical distancing guidelines from 6 to 3 feet because schools could not have transitioned from hybrid to full in-person instruction if they hadn’t; and three, the CDC reduced the quarantine period to 5 days so schools (and other places of work) would not be forced to temporarily close for a lack of laborers; we can say that the CDC wants to keep schools open. This brings us back to our two questions. Why does Bill Gates, who stands in for an owning class that has advocated for relaxed COVID measures throughout the pandemic despite making record profits on their investments this year and last, want schools open? And, why does the federal government want schools open? The answer, I think, is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like most federal institutions in the United States, serves corporate power. This is an increasingly popular sentiment. Marxist analysis makes sense of this perversion of the state. Capitalism promotes the accumulation of wealth in the owning class. This ultra-rich minority then deploys their wealth in defense of their social dominion. We see this in action every time corporations and their executives spend millions of dollars financing politicians, who supposedly regulate them and are responsible to the public. Through control of the media, wealthy interests propagandize the capitalist status-quo.47 The role of a public government in an advanced capitalist economy is eventually reduced to one of entrenching private wealth and existing class hierarchies. Late political scientist Sheldon Wollin refers to the rule over the public state by private corporations as ‘inverted-totalitarianism’.48
A final question remains. Why do corporations want schools open? I think there are two reasons. First, school closures cascade into business closures and demand federal relief programs, as workers are forced to shift from laboring for the capitalist class to laboring for their children and families at home. Even two more weeks of remote school clearly sets too much of an anti-capitalist precedent and poses too big of a problem for the capitalist status-quo. Second, school is one of the most important institutions to capital. At least in part, the function of most U.S. public schools is to weed-out critical dissenters and to graduate perfect workers under capitalism, who are literate and capable of algebra, ignorant of peoples’ histories, uncritical, obedient, and most of all fully socialized into the circumstance of working for 7 hours, 5 days a week, on tasks that they have no say in determining and often find meaningless, with extrinsic threats and rewards as motivation, within a hierarchical organization. The Correspondence Principle, as proposed by economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, finds that high grades in school correlate less with measured intellectual abilities than with personality traits such as perseverance, consistency, and punctuality, while low grades correlate more with creativity, aggressiveness, and independence than high grades or measures of intelligence. Further, the exact same correspondence holds in the workplace. The first set of traits correlate with a high likelihood of being promoted, while the second set correlate with a low likelihood of promotion.49 ‘Good student’ is a euphemism for ‘good worker’.
Schools must be open for corporations, not for students, and federal officials have done their part to make sure schools are open because they submit to private power, a precondition of appointment or election. Schools must be open so workers can continue to labor for rich executives, and because it cannot be revealed to the masses that an alternative situation involving less work and publicly compensated costs of living is possible.
Back to school tomorrow.
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