by Dayna Long and Ben Heili
Wisconsin hit its worst COVID-19 numbers of the pandemic in November – its worst numbers so far, at least. While cases have been trending downward in the state since that peak, the number of new cases is still worse than at any point before last fall. Vaccine distribution is underway, but failures on many levels of government have led to a dismal start. At the earliest, it will be several months until we can rely on vaccine-based herd immunity to protect us. Meanwhile, multiple new strains of the virus that have been found to be more contagious are spreading through the United States, largely undetected. These strains have led to astronomical spikes in places like the UK, Brazil, and South Africa. The CDC has warned that B.1.1.7, the strain that was first detected in the UK, could become the dominant COVID-19 strain in the US by March.
We aren’t out of the woods. Wisconsin could plunge into an even deadlier surge in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Safety is not a foregone conclusion, but an outcome that depends on the actions we take today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks and months. The last thing we should be doing at this critical juncture is reopening schools and loosening up restrictions.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening throughout Dane County. Madison Metropolitan School District is now in the minority as teachers and students continue remote learning into the third quarter of the 2020-2021 school year. Sun Prairie School District began its return to in-person learning in December. In Verona, Stoughton, McFarland, Oregon, and more, school districts are expanding their phased reopening plans. Some of these school districts are not limiting their in-person activities to instruction, but are also allowing student athletes to train and compete outside of Dane County, beyond the reach of Public Health Madison & Dane County’s most recent public health order.
These reckless reopenings are dangerous for teachers, students, and their families, but the harm won’t stop there. As we learned when UW-Madison’s disastrous reopening took place last fall, an outbreak in one part of the community eventually affects all of us. If anything, teachers, school staff, students, and their families are even more closely integrated with the rest of the community than college students. Our entire county could pay a steep price for these premature reopenings.
There are real reasons to want to resume in-person education as quickly as possible. Like all people, children need social outlets. Younger children especially are not able to approximate their normal social interactions online. What’s more, neoliberal austerity and the shrinking of the social safety net means that more students rely on their schools for essential resources than ever before. For some students, schools are a safe haven where they can find food, counseling, and even medical attention. It is indisputable that students who are trapped at home for months on end are suffering.
Also, already-struggling districts face enrollment pressure. Dissatisfied parents can take their students to other districts, to private and charter schools, which pulls money out of the district’s already-tight budgets. With pandemic safety being a partisan political issue, and with open enrollment putting neighboring districts in competition, a district reopening in the next town over is a threat to the solvency of a district that prioritizes safety.
But in this instance, the immediate interests of struggling students and school districts happen to align with the interests of businesses, which is why you see “reopen the school” demands amplified in powerful places. For example, the editorial board of the Wisconsin State Journal has published three different pieces arguing for schools to reopen since December 1, a period in which 2,391 Wisconsinites have died of COVID-19. The paper frequently invokes the well-being of Black students and cites ongoing racial disparities as a reason for returning to in-person learning. As Madison Teachers Inc. Vice President Mike Jones pointed out in a scathing letter to the editor, it is hard to believe that a paper that has long specialized in spreading panic about Black teens is sincere in its concern about racial disparities.
So what’s the real reason for this obsession? Getting kids back to school means getting parents back to work at pre-pandemic levels of productivity. Remote learning requires not just parental supervision but ongoing support, especially for younger children. It has taken an enormous toll on working parents, especially women, who are exiting the workforce en masse. Employers who are eager to bring their own workers back to in-person work will struggle to do so, as long as schools are remote. Locally, this includes Epic Systems, which tried and failed to force workers back in August, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Additionally, many businesses need a sense of normalcy to prevail in order to make money. Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, referred to this as restoring “consumer confidence” at a Downtown Madison Inc. presentation last spring. Confident consumption these days means believing you are safe as you go out to eat at a restaurant or linger inside a shop. If you and your children are stuck at home because it’s not safe for them to return to school, it is hard to forget that you’re living through a deadly pandemic that is far from over.
The big push to reopen schools is not limited to Dane County or even Wisconsin. It is a part of a nationwide push, aided and abetted by the CDC under the guidance of the Biden administration. Biden has made reopening schools in 100 days an early priority for his presidency. This is not surprising. Biden is also quite attuned to the desires of businesses. He also has the interests of the Democratic Party to consider. The Democratic Party has shown real reluctance to provide the kind of meaningful, long-term financial assistance that would allow people to shelter in place without going hungry or losing their homes, and which might provide a buffer to a fragile economy if we locked down. A lockdown without financial support would lead to more clashes with the right, more job losses, and greater economic downturn – perhaps not a recipe for midterm election success.
While it is true that his administration has taken a far more organized and proactive approach to managing the pandemic than the Trump team, Biden will not adopt the sort of measures that would stem the tide of mass death. In fact, he has openly warned people that it will get worse before it gets better and that we should brace ourselves for hundreds of thousands more deaths in the months to come, as if they are inevitable. Party loyalist Democratic mayors and governors are actively carrying out the Biden approach in their own locales. Governor Andrew Cuomo, once heralded as a science-minded hero of the pandemic, is now pushing to reopen New York’s economy even as the state is emerging as a hotspot for new COVID-19 variants. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is locked in yet another showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union over Chicago Public Schools’ attempts to force teachers back into unsafe classrooms.
Those arguing that it is time to restart schools are almost exclusively relying on research that was conducted before the emergence of new strains of COVID-19, several of which are now circulating in the United States. How widespread are these strains? We don’t know yet. Virus sequencing in the United States happens slowly compared to other countries, which means that the numbers we have are likely undercounts. Still, the CDC is reporting one or more of the new COVID-19 strains in 30 states so far, including one case of the B.1.1.7 variant in Wisconsin, 10 in Minnesota, and nine in Illinois. Scientists are warning that some of these new strains appear to be 30-70% more contagious than the strain we’ve been living with. With more infected people infecting people more, that can result in worse exponential growth – multiple times more cases than the previous strain under similar spread conditions.
What’s more, we are learning more all the time about the serious long-term health effects of COVID-19, which can include lasting damage to the brain, heart, and lungs. One study in the UK found that 30% of people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 were readmitted to the hospital within five months of being discharged initially, and almost 1 in 8 died. What health challenges will COVID-19 survivors face in a year or ten years? What right do school districts have to ask teachers, students, and their families to find out? And what protection are school districts truly offering teachers? In December, a Sun Prairie teacher shared her account of being denied accommodations when she asked to be allowed to continue teaching remotely in the final months of her pregnancy. Recently a different teacher in the Sun Prairie school district published an open letter pleading with parents of students to skip family vacation this year, as their travel would put her and the rest of the students in their in-person classroom at risk.
From the start of the pandemic, working class people in Dane County have led the way in shutting down in-person work, fighting for workplace safety, and filling in the gaps where the inadequate web of government and non-profit agencies have failed. When we came together in the hundreds and thousands to fight for Black lives, our actions did not lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases because of the steps we took to protect one another. Even as business-led lawsuits and Republicans in the Wisconsin State legislature undermined the most basic safety measures, even as Public Health Madison & Dane County willingly relaxed restrictions, most people have yet to return to a normal way of life. Our choices and our care for one another has saved lives.
We cannot hope that someone will intervene on our behalf now to protect us from the selfishness and greed of the business community, or the spinelessness of school and public health officials. But we can organize to defend ourselves – again. This pandemic is far from over. In fact, the danger is increasing. Now is not the time to resume in-person learning or to relax restrictions in any way. Now is the time for us to come together to protect teachers and students and our broader community and to demand financial relief that will allow people to stay safe at home while we wait to get the vaccine.