Closing the schools is not the only option

Schools that feel unwilling or unable to close outright should, then, give their diverse student populations and their teachers some flexibility.

For starters, schools could stay open but announce that they will tolerate long absences for as long as the crisis lasts. Schools are rightly concerned about truancy, especially for at-risk students, such as homeless children. But the usual rules of reporting extended absences to child-welfare authorities shouldn’t apply in this moment of national crisis. Since attendance records determine school funding and Every Student Succeeds Act scores, such policies should also be suspended or waived.

Parents in all 50 states have the right to educate their children as they choose, so it really doesn’t make sense to turn families into adversaries with arguments about whose perception of risk is more accurate. (One recent study estimated that 41 percent of Americans face the risk of serious illness should they become infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, due to underlying health conditions.) If families want to take on the responsibility of educating their children during a pandemic, they should be allowed to do so, and schools should welcome these students back at the end of the crisis without recrimination or drama. (That said, parents should not expect that teachers will get their kids caught up on material they have missed.) Children can learn in a number of settings, after all, and parents who keep their kids at home with them are actually performing a public service to those making a different choice, by reducing social mixing.