West Coast States’ Failure to Reopen Schools Is a Disaster


An empty school front at the Ramon C. Cortinez School of Visual and performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles on March 16, 2020, as many school districts in California canceled classes in favor of online education. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

Up and down the West Coast, millions of children in some of the country’s largest cities have had no in-person education since last March. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, and myriad other cities, there is precious little evidence the public schools will be reopening for most kids before the summer holidays. Meanwhile, in many of those same cities, private schools have been providing in-person classes during much of the pandemic, and wealthier suburban public school districts are finalizing plans to reopen in the spring.

The result of this extraordinary shutdown is that low-income, special-needs, and ESL kids in the three coastal states—which pride themselves on their progressive politics—have been left behind. In refusing to go back to classrooms in these urban hubs, teachers’ unions increasingly risk a public backlash. And for the coastal governors, this is a political nightmare. For, in failing to knock heads together to get the teachers’ unions and school district administrations to come to agreements, and in not securing the funds to properly ventilate classrooms—or move them outdoors, in a region with weather hospitable to months of outdoor learning—and reduce class sizes, the three West Coast governors are, by default, abetting this tragedy.

When Donald Trump was in charge of the country and political action around the pandemic was so skewed by his mismanagement and the MAGA movement’s refusal to take public health seriously, it made sense for states and teachers’ unions to be extremely cautious about reopening school. For so many people, Trump and his inane approach to public health made everything black and white: Conservatives too often claimed, and acted as if, the pandemic was a big brouhaha over nothing; progressives were inclined to embrace any and all restrictive response aimed at slowing disease transmission.

Now, with the vaccines rolling out and the federal government working in lockstep with public health authorities, it makes more sense to inject nuance into the conversation, nowhere more so than when it comes to education.

It is an abdication of responsibility for teachers’ unions and district administrations to reject CDC guidelines on returning to schools over the coming months, and not prepare to reopen classrooms at the end of this academic year—or even the next academic year. And it is a political cop-out for governors to not prioritize funding to reopen in a speedy manner, and to not also be willing to take heat from the unions by pushing districts to reopen.

When I was a young journalist, in the early 1990s, I began covering the extraordinary societal experiment that was mass incarceration. Across the political spectrum, politicians embraced legislation aimed at increasing the number of people sentenced to prison, increasing the length of sentences, and making prison conditions ever more brutal. It was a combination of deterrence and retribution that had wide public support and the blessing of influential criminologists such as James Q. Wilson.

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