All children left behind: The Education Disaster in the USA

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In the midst of a phase of new records of COVID19 infections and an epidemic that is completely out of control in large parts of the country, the new school year in the USA is gradually beginning. The political failure in dealing with the corona epidemic is having particularly dramatic social consequences here.

Iowa Teachers Drive for Lives
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Protest against school openings in the USA.
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Over 76 million students in the United States who have stayed home since the nationwide school closure in the spring face an uncertain autumn. Their parents, like the country's 13,000 school districts, must make impossible trade-offs between public health care, economic constraints, and the well-being and developmental needs of their children.

The impossible balancing process for and against school openings

In Washington, DC and neighboring cities, an area with about one million school-age children, a decision was made in recent weeks to provide completely virtual schooling for all age groups at least until mid-November. This is analogous to the vast majority of metropolitan school districts, where no local classes will be held for the foreseeable future. These decisions are due in part to the great pressure exerted by teachers' unions, which, in the interests of their members' health, have done everything in their power to prevent schools from being forced to open.

But many parents also spoke out in surveys against the reopening of schools. Remarkably, these are mainly parents from socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods and members of minorities. This seems paradoxical at first sight, because it is precisely in these neighbourhoods that the social and economic consequences of school closures are already particularly extensive. However, precisely where almost everyone has already lost relatives as a result of COVID19 , the survival of family members is literally the most important priority and all other considerations are secondary in view of the situation.

In a moving article for the Washington Post, Jeff Gregorich, a school principal from Arizona, vividly describes the impossible situation he and his school are facing. He describes the political pressure to open the school completely, with the Republican governor threatening to cut five percent of the funding for his poorly equipped school. He describes the social misery of many families and the extent to which his district, its employees and the families of his students* are affected by the virus. And he describes the extent to which he feels left alone to make decisions for which he is neither qualified nor adequately equipped.

Most school districts currently fail to meet the most important criterion for reopening, a positive COVID19 test rate of less than 5%. In some large school districts the current rate is even four times higher.

Election campaign on the back of the families

Against this background, large-scale public support programmes for schools, parents and teachers would be urgently needed, either to allow limited school openings for younger children in some parts of the country or to mitigate the negative social consequences of further long-term school closures. This ranges from entitlement to longer parental leave with wage compensation to the nationwide provision of free Internet connections and computers and the recruitment of significantly more teaching staff.

Instead of facing up to this, however, the Trump government has done everything it can to make the situation even worse. On the one hand, such initiatives would mean admitting that containment of the virus has failed for the time being. And secondly, they would acknowledge that, contrary to the orthodoxy of republicans, the state has a comprehensive role to play in these times as a guarantor of social security and social equality of opportunity.

Donald Trump, however, is in the middle of a political struggle for survival, which he believes he can only win by negating reality on the one hand and by turning social groups against each other on the other. Because in his world cannot be what is not allowed to be, Trump has been talking for weeks about the fact that all the schools in the country must reopen completely. After the CDC published guidelines for the safe opening of schools, Trump intervened and watered them down. He publicly threatened his education minister, Betsy DeVos, to cut federal funding for all school districts that do not fully reopen their doors. He has many Republican governors on his side, who pass the pressure on schools in their states without doing anything to help them reopen safely. Politically, this goes hand in hand with an attempt to use desperate parents who are at a loss after five months of childcare at home to play off against teachers and school districts to push for school opening.

Behind this is the fact that opening schools is one of the most important factors in boosting the US economy in time for the presidential election. Instead of supporting particularly affected families, Republicans are therefore now even trying to cut social corona emergency programs to increase pressure on citizens to go back to work out of necessity. This, in turn, is difficult for parents to reconcile with closed schools. One effect of this is that already now especially women, who were disproportionately affected by job losses due to COVID19 anyway, are reducing their working hours or giving up their jobs, with long-term effects for professional and social equality.

In the USA, for example, a ruthless election campaign is currently being carried out on the backs of children, parents and schools.

The social consequences of school closures

The long-term school closures are already having massive consequences for the children who are particularly affected. Since mid-March, almost all school children in the country have been at home all the time. The social divide in the education system, access to good education depending on origin and parental home, has increased significantly since then. According to estimates, at the end of the last school year, only about 60% of pupils regularly participated in online lessons. At many schools in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods, this figure was less than half. According to a study by Harvard University, children in poorer areas have already lost between seven and ten months academically, while children in affluent areas have been able to maintain their academic level.

These trends are exacerbated by the digital divide, the very unequal access to fast Internet and computers. In addition, the epidemic has reduced local tax revenues, which are the main source of income for schools in the United States, and is widening inequalities between school districts.

Schools in the US are also far more than educational institutions and social venues. They are a backbone for social services such as free food and health care, especially in mental health issues. According to estimates, one of the consequences of this is that 14 million children in the USA already do not have enough to eat.

Black and Latino people throughout the country are disproportionately affected by these developments. At a time when "Black Lives Matter" is on everyone's lips, children with darker skin colour threaten to be socially left behind for a long time.

At the other end of the social spectrum, many parents who can afford it are now leaving the public education system altogether and turning to private schools or hiring private teachers, sometimes with some other families in so-called "pandemic pods". Thus, the further privatization of the US education system, a core concern of Trump's Secretary of Education DeVos, is taking on epidemic proportions.

And then there are still some school districts, especially in the Midwest, that are daring to experiment with reopening schools in spite of all the epidemiological circumstances. The first experiences with this are not particularly encouraging. One of the first school districts in Indiana, which reopened its doors at the end of July, had to close a school after only a few hours due to a new COVID19 case. In other schools there were already several cases after a few days and whole classes and groups of teachers were quarantined. Many observers suspect that it is only a matter of time until even the last of these schools will have to face reality and close their doors again.