A bottom-up approach to school openings

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My nephew is a middle school history teacher near Dayton, Ohio and he loves to teach. As we get closer to the start of the school year, and it has become clearer that schools won't fully reopen, his enthusiasm has turned to dread. "I didn't sign up for this," he complained. "Online teaching offers none of the things about teaching that I enjoy."

On the other hand, an older friend of mine from book club who teaches high school dreads reopening. She is scared to death of being exposed to her students. "Not only are they unaware of their own mortality, they're likely indifferent to mine!" she mused.

Every teacher has a strong preference, if not a rock solid reason, for schools to reopen or not. And no matter what districts decide, it will be viewed as the wrong choice by many. However, except for teachers who are at or near retirement, a mass exodus of teacher talent is unlikely. Relatively generous teacher pensions, in spite of being poorly structured, a financial disaster for states, and oftentimes fundamentally unfair to many teachers, may in and of themselves keep teachers from walking.

To get a sense of just how much school districts are struggling right now, and will continue to struggle as one deadline slips to the next, consider how uncharacteristically tight-lipped they're being about their plans. No public hearings. Nothing on websites. The most significant disruption ever experienced in American schooling is all being handled behind closed doors. And really, who can blame them? Districts don't want or need more input to make a decision they know will be politically charged, upsetting to many, and probably unsuited to local needs in many places.

At the heart of their hopeless task is the fact that the COVID pandemic simply presents too many variables for a school district of any significant size to devise a single, workable policy on school openings. It is for this reason that I not only think Betsy DeVos has no business telling schools what to do, but neither does Governor DeSantis who has encouraged Florida school districts to open willy nilly, nor Governor Newsom in ordering some 30 California districts to go virtual. In fact, I would take the argument a lot further: I am not so sure that mayors or superintendents should be the deciders either. Given the complex mix of local circumstances and community needs, individual schools with their communities may be in the best position to choose the best course.

Never much a defender of local control in education, I now think we have nothing to lose by shifting some authority to local communities to put a plan in motion for educating kids—provided a school agrees to adhere to clearly articulated safety goals (set by the district), and the line not to be crossed, demarcating when it is just too unsafe to have anyone physically present in schools.

This approach may sound familiar, a lot like the disastrous lack of a unified federal response to the pandemic leaving states and cities to fend for themselves, often competing with each other. However I don't think this approach is analogous. In the case of the federal government, it had a clear path to follow but abrogated its responsibility. Here the path is not as clear, is highly contextual, and in fact, there may be no 'right' or 'wrong' solution. It's what universities and colleges are doing. Why can't our public schools?

The principle of subsidiarity argues that matters of public interest should be handled at the lowest possible level of competent authority, absent a compelling reason to retain such matters with a higher authority—the very principle behind the division between federal and state authority in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. Although critical matters of budgets and curriculum need to remain a systemwide obligation, the appropriate level of decision-making for operational issues in these circumstances is hyper-local, and by that I mean neighborhood-local.

Not only is this likely to best address community needs and preferences, it also offers the greatest opportunity to unleash the energy and good will of a community to provide solutions, particularly in communities where parents have no choice but to work (often with inflexible work policies), children are most in need of school-provided supports. The notion of all-hands-on-deck in a crisis seems to have gone out of style, not just under this President, but long before.

I cannot recall the last time we as a nation were asked to give of ourselves for the public good in any significant way. This may be the moment. It should not surprise a nation that treasures its yeoman farmers, pioneers, inventors, researchers, and entrepreneurs that a community given the agency to decide its own fate will find a way to solve thorny problems: engaging an army of volunteers, providing day care, enforcing social distancing, deciding when and when not to go online, as well as the obvious need to expand (and sometimes contract) the hours that school buildings are open. All those issues are best solved by those who will live with the outcomes.