• When it comes to the contentious debate over whether we should be reopening schools this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci says we definitely should reopen and push for in-person classroom learning.
  • CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield concurs, arguing that shifting to a virtual learning model instead of reopening schools would open kids up to missing crucial mental health and nutrition services they get from schools.
  • The question of how to practically go about reopening schools in a safe manner, of course, is a whole different matter entirely.

Federal public officials like White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci are taking a different tack now in trying to make the case for reopening schools this fall, and it amounts to basically trying to scare people into supporting a move to send kids back to school for in-person learning.

At a congressional hearing, for example, Fauci — who’s also the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and who’s been pretty negative in his assessment of the US response to the coronavirus pandemic — said that our “default position” should be to open schools back up for the fall semester. That we should try “as best as we possibly can in the context of the safety of the children and the teachers” to get back to in-person learning, inside classrooms. The danger if we don’t, Fauci continued, is all of the “downstream unintended consequences on families” if alternate arrangements have to be made.

During that same hearing Friday, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield was even blunter in his support of reopening schools this fall. Keeping the schools closed, he said, will deny more than 7 million schoolchildren access to the vital mental health and nutritional services they get from schools.

“It’s really important to realize it’s not public health versus the economy about school opening, it’s public health versus public health of the K-through-12 to get the schools open,” Redfield said. “We’ve got to do it safely and we have to be able to accommodate.”

My community here in Memphis has decided to switch to virtual learning for our local public school system’s upcoming semester, with our superintendent going so far as to say that the safe reopening of schools for in-person learning is “largely a myth.” According to the education-focused news outlet Chalkbeat, he added that “Direction signs on floors, spacing desks, more hand sanitizer, and masks cannot make a school safe in a community that is experiencing a daily triple-digit increase of virus cases, hospital admissions, and death.”

Fauci, meanwhile, has even used some arguably problematic wording in his explanation for why the upcoming school semester needs to happen in-person, saying at a recent virtual town hall that teachers are going to be “part of the experiment.” (No one, of course, likes to be told straight-up that they’re going to essentially be guinea pigs in an experiment that involves public health.)

“As you try to get back to school, we’re going to be learning about that,” Fauci said. “In many respects, unfortunately, though this may sound a little scary and harsh — I don’t mean it to be that way — is that you’re going to actually be part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know. Remember, early on when we shut down the country, as it were, the schools were shut down, so we don’t know the full impact, we don’t have the total database of knowing what there is to expect.”

One thing we do know is that large-scale gatherings of any kind are unsafe right now. The coronavirus keeps ripping through Major League Baseball teams that have started to get together to play. For these and many other reasons, I’m not yet convinced that opening schools this fall is a serious discussion we should be entertaining yet.

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.