While 2020 has been an unprecedented year in many ways, the COVID-19 catastrophe does have some precedent in recent American history. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast of Louisiana. Although the storm impacted only a small geographic region of the United States, the parallels to the present are obvious: a purposefully botched federal disaster response resulted in horrific, unnecessary suffering and death, borne disproportionately by vulnerable and marginalized individuals. Another critical parallel between Hurricane Katrina and COVID-19 is that COVID, like Katrina, presents an opportunity for powerful corporate interests to remake public institutions in ways that serve their goals. This idea was treated at length in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, which introduced the term “disaster capitalism” to describe “orchestrated raids on the public sphere” during and following catastrophes.
This year, as 21 million people have lost jobs, 15 million have lost health insurance, 40 million have struggled to remain housed and 54 million have struggled to eat, our country’s 651 billionaires have increased their wealth by one trillion dollars. So too did powerful corporate interests clean up after Katrina. Halliburton subsidiary KBR received millions of dollars in no-bid contracts for hurricane response and New Orleans’s public housing projects were largely closed, as was the public Charity Hospital. After the storm, the state of Louisiana also took over all of New Orleans’s public schools and converted virtually all of them to charter schools. Charter schools are schools that receive public funding but operate privately, independently of the public education system. Advocates for education privatization, among them many powerful corporate interests, prefer the charter structure to the traditional public education structure. The charter structure reflects their preference for an education system that looks more like the private sector, free from accountability to workers or the public.
In fact, the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana received financial support for their school overhaul from the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization endowed by Walmart founders Sam and and Helen Walton. The Walton Family Foundation lists supporting charter schools and “school choice” vouchers (that enable students to spend public education dollars in a private school) as one element of its core mission. The same players that refashioned New Orleans after Katrina have turned up in the debate over reopening schools for in-person instruction; this time, they face obstacles in the form of teachers’ unions across the country.
Whether and how to open schools for in-person instruction is a hotly debated issue in the United States right now. Ideally, a transparent and deliberative process to develop school reopening guidelines would have been undertaken by a central public health authority like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). However, public trust in CDC guidance has been eroded due to obvious White House interference over the course of the pandemic. The guidelines for school reopening that the CDC ultimately created are very agnostic about which preventive or mitigation measures to use, leaving academics — who specialize in producing novel ideas, but are not accountable to the public to the same extent as a government body — to fill the vacuum.
This kind of environment for generating scientific evidence about a high-stakes public health problem has not only created confusion, contention, and polarization — it has created fertile ground for opportunism and disaster capitalism. Citing a paucity of expert guidance or federal data, Brown University economist Emily Oster created the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard in September of this year. The dashboard collects self-reported school-level data on COVID-19 infection rates and mitigation strategies in K-12 schools in the United States. Participation in the dashboard is voluntary, usually per the discretion of district superintendents. Because participation is voluntary, the data collected by the dashboard are unrepresentative of schools nationally. Underreporting of infections in schools, both due to asymptomatic infections that may not be picked up by testing and due to tests that are not reported to schools, may also result in school COVID prevalence estimates that are optimistically low. These issues have not stopped Oster and others from using the data to make bold claims about the safety of in-person instruction. The dashboard operates with funding from three foundation sources: the Templeton Foundation, which has been implicated in the dark-money networks that fund climate science denial; the Arnold Foundation, which has supported efforts to eliminate public pensions and a number of free-market “education reform” initiatives; and the Walton Family Foundation. The philanthropic track records of these funders demonstrate their clear interests in overhauling and privatizing public education in the United States. It is also clear that these interests oppose public school teachers’ unions as a potential obstacle to free-market experimentation on public schools.
Oster is also among the authors of the recently released Schools and the Path to Zero. Schools and the Path to Zero was written by several public health and other academics, with funding support from the New America Foundation. The New America Foundation’s work on education is funded by a $3.8 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a long track record of support for the charter school movement. It is perhaps predictable that Schools and the Path to Zero downplays the risks of in-person instruction. While many of the mitigation strategies outlined in Schools and the Path to Zero could work to make in-person instruction safer at least in theory, the document falsely asserts that children transmit coronavirus at lower levels than adults and that teachers are at low risk of contracting COVID in schools, comparable to the risk to other “low risk” professions like grocery cashiers. Most concerningly, Schools and the Path to Zero abandons the idea that the safety of in-person instruction depends on the levels of viral transmission in the surrounding community. The CDC and other institutions have long asserted that community spread is a key metric that should guide school reopening decisions. Since it is clear that the United States will continue to have unmitigated spread into 2021, it seems that Schools and the Path to Zero’s explicit assertion that community spread is irrelevant to the safety of in-person instruction signals a firm intention to push school personnel back into work at any cost. Oster and the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools also recently appeared at an event hosted by Bellwether Education Partners, an anti-union education reform nonprofit organization that strongly supports charter schools and “school choice.” Incidentally, the Chicago Teachers’ Union, one of the country’s most militant, is resisting a plan by the district to force teachers back to in-person instruction in January. It is not clear what Oster’s personal politics or beliefs are, but it is clear that powerful anti-union interests have found in her work a useful instrument.
The data collected by the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard and the optimistic interpretations Oster and other advocates for in-person instruction draw from them serve to reinforce an anti-public school and specifically anti-teacher program. To this end, a number of very predictable talking points have emerged. First: that children don’t get or spread coronavirus in appreciable numbers. This is false. Second, that transmission doesn’t happen in schools. This is also false. Third, any transmission that does happen in schools simply “reflects” the level of transmission in the surrounding community. Schools are part of the community, but to the extent that making this distinction is meaningful the assertion is false. Fourth, that any teachers, school staff, or children who die of COVID-19 after working or attending school in-person didn’t acquire it in school. This is morally questionable and certainly, at least in some cases, false.
What does the science actually say? It says, essentially, what common sense tells us: that children can and do become infected with coronavirus at roughly the same rate as adults (though children are more likely to be asymptomatic); that children can and do transmit coronavirus as efficiently as adults; that schools, like other congregate indoor settings, are sites where SARS-CoV-2 transmission can occur; that within-school transmission can spill over and even “drive” transmission in the broader community; and that beyond the school building, sending students to school inevitably means that students, teachers, and parents will have more contact with the community outside of school. We know that, though rarely, children can have severe COVID, severe complications from COVID, and can die from COVID infection; and we know that racial disparities in COVID severity and mortality in children mirror those observed in adult populations. We know that children aren’t the only people in schools and that nearly half of school employees meet the CDC’s definition of “high risk” for severe COVID. We know some things about the school setting: proper precautions, including prioritization of efforts to keep the virus low in the community, can make in-person instruction safer. However, complex and costly mitigation strategies may be difficult to implement in severely under-resourced public schools that lack basic amenities like heating, air conditioning, or soap, and where teachers have to buy basic supplies out of their own pockets.
In the absence of a federal COVID response strategy, cities and states have failed to prioritize in-person instruction in schools by closing non-essential retail and leisure activities. This failure reflects the different levels of worker power and organization in different sectors: teachers are largely unionized, while restaurant workers largely aren’t. Of course, the charter school associations and the Walton Foundation don’t like this, because a unionized workforce is an impediment to their stated objective of privatizing public education. This brings us to a fifth talking point that is beginning to emerge: that teaching in-person is completely safe and it’s just lazy, greedy unionized teachers who are maliciously impeding children’s academic progress simply out of spite, backwardness, and scientific illiteracy.
The foundations supporting the push to return to in-person instruction want to weaken and discredit teachers’ unions. The school reopening debate presents them with a two-pronged opportunity to do so: first, they can paint teachers’ unions as unreasonable to parents who are persuaded that schools should be open for in-person instruction; second, with the support of academic experts and public opinion they can be successful in opening schools counter to unions’ demands. The implicit moral calculation of the in-person instruction advocates is that the risks to students, families, and school personnel are worth the benefits of having schools “open.” This is a position that one can argue and disagree with, as many school personnel clearly do, but only if the position is recognized as moral and political, not scientific. However, these corporate interests have been adept at mobilizing scientific authorities and appropriating scientific language to realize their agenda. As a consequence, many public health academics have mistaken the moral and political disagreement at the heart of the school reopening debate for a much lower-stakes empirical disagreement. Where the infamous Great Barrington Declaration was a strategic intervention to sow confusion about the value of public health interventions, the confusion around schools is the self-generated result of our ill preparation to recognize political subterfuge masquerading as legitimate scientific debate.
Public health is at the center of the COVID-19 crisis, positioned at the nexus of competing and incompatible public and corporate interests. Part of our mission should be critical appraisal of how scientific evidence is generated and attention to the political economic forces shaping knowledge production. Regardless of one’s personal position on education politics, these education politics do affect how and what scientific evidence is generated and deployed in the media. That the pandemic presents an opportunity for pro-privatization advocates should be a factor that is explicitly considered when weighing arguments, scientific and otherwise, for a return to in-person instruction.