Two things need to happen before students can go back to school: First, Americans and their elected representatives must consciously decide that children’s needs are worth accepting some additional risk. Second, states and communities must commit the money and effort necessary to reinvent education under radically changed circumstances. Even in states where case counts have plunged, doing what’s right for children will require a massive civic mobilization.

The problem isn’t that policy makers—many of them parents too—don’t know what families are going through. It’s that, fundamentally, the way public officials thought about the consequences of this crisis was flawed. Early in the pandemic, authorities viewed the closure of schools as essential to preventing the spread of a deadly new disease. The federal government and the states have no firm plans for restarting school in August and September because they had no such plans in February and March; public officials simply didn’t classify education as a crucial form of infrastructure in need of protection…

Four months of stay-at-home orders have proved that, if schools are unavailable, a city cannot work, a community cannot function, a nation cannot safeguard itself. That the federal government deemed schools a potential health threat to be shut down during a pandemic—but not an essential service—may reflect the American view of education as a state and local matter. More likely, the omission reflects a lack of imagination. In March, few foresaw that the shutdown measures would go on this long, and almost everyone assumed that the U.S. government in particular would spend the time far more wisely.