“All politics is local,” Tip O’Neill famously observed. (In fact, this former Speaker of the House wrote a book by that title.)
As the next chapter of COVID-19 and election-year politics take us closer to the November deadline, we believe that the school-opening issue is a new major influence. Scenario 1: Schools are opened with minimal sickness and few deaths and everyone heaves a big sigh of relief by October. Scenario 2: Schools open and there is a COVID spike and mass transmission, leading to reclosing of schools and resulting headlines that scare businesses and the economy, undermining the national reopening, and we have chaos. Scenario 3: School districts find ways to change, as they did at the turn of the 20th century, when schooling moved out of doors in response to a global tuberculosis epidemic. (See “When Fears of Tuberculosis Drove an Open-Air School Movement,” History.com, https://www.history.com/news/school-outside-tuberculosis.) What happens will be determined by local school boards in our towns, counties, and cities. This is the process that Tip O’Neill described, and it presents us with a huge democratic challenge. In our view the results will be a major determinant of the outcome of elections nationwide. Today we cannot predict those results.
Let’s get to a case study that has become a national story.
The first day of school in Paulding County, Georgia, unfolded on August 3. At North Paulding High School students threaded their way through crowded halls in the usual way to get from class to class. Someone snapped a photo. In any other year that photo would have been unremarkable. But this year, by the next day, people had shared the photo all over social media. Could this really be a photo snapped in a US high school in the fall of 2020, as COVID-19 ravages Georgia and as the state of Georgia’s ICUs fill? (For the overall picture, see “Georgia hospitals see record surge of COVID-19 patients,” Fox 5 Atlanta, https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/georgia-hospitals-see-record-surge-of-covid-19-patients.)
Only a few of many students who crowded the hallway wore masks, which are optional (Georgia’s Governor, Brian Kemp, refuses to mandate masks in schools). Masks are required in Georgia if you are shopping at Costco or Walmart or Home Depot or Kroger or any of the other major retailers who now require masks. Those businesses have made mask wearing and personal safety is a national corporate policy. But Governor Kemp does things his own way, so masks are optional at this school in Paulding Georgia. Students were not six feet apart or even three – they were shoulder to shoulder. By now many of you may have seen the photograph, as it made the news across the country.
Just in case you missed it, here is the photo. Dear reader, you be the judge. What do you expect over the next few weeks and months for this school and for this community in Georgia?
Tip O’Neill was right. All politics is local. And local politics and state politics and national politics and associated policies and messaging have public health implications in everybody’s hometown and in all 50 states.
Paulding County Schools are within the greater Atlanta area. They say they offer families an online alternative to in-person learning, but it appears that there’s a waiting list for that option.
Atlanta’s 11Alive News reports:
“A school system spokesperson confirms that students on the waiting list for at-home, on-line learning are required to be in school in the meantime. The spokesperson said that parents of 70 percent of Paulding County’s 31,000 students chose to send their children back to school for in-person classes. That’s nearly 22,000 students. The parents of 30 percent of the students, about 9,000 students, opted for at-home, on-line learning. Information on how many of the 9,000 students are on the waiting list for the on-line learning option was not immediately available.”
(“Students who want virtual learning are forced into in-person school because of waiting list,” https://www.11alive.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/paulding-at-home-learning-wait-list/85-00d037bd-eaa0-4fbe-9c06-dd21b40d335a)
Until there is space in the online learning program, those on the waiting list are expected to attend school.
Meanwhile, at North Paulding High School, several members of the football team have already tested positive for COVID (“North Paulding Footballers Positive For COVID-19 As School Starts,” https://patch.com/georgia/dallas-hiram/north-paulding-footballers-positive-covid-19-school-starts).
Let’s dig a little deeper. We find that the news out of Paulding County Schools seems even worse. Reporters for BuzzFeed News spoke to several teachers who reported that one teacher, who was later confirmed to have COVID-19, worked at school with other staff members while symptomatic. This was during the pre-school opening planning days last week. How many other teachers and staff were exposed? They are just waiting to see who gets sick. The school system, meanwhile, is pushing parents to send their children to school whether parents feel that is safe or not.
BuzzFeed reported one family’s story:
“James’ parents saw the photograph that had been circulating Tuesday and told him, ‘You are not going back to school again,’ he said. But a few hours later, his mother had spoken to the school and was told that students who ‘chose not to go to school’ could face suspension or expulsion. On Wednesday, he went back to school. ‘I had no choice,’ he said.” (“The Truth Behind A Viral Picture Of A Reopening School Is Worse Than It Looked,” BuzzFeed, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/mollyhensleyclancy/georgia-school-reopening-photo-paulding-county)
A local Dallas, GA, news outlet reported that the superintendent of Paulding County Schools, Brian Otott, defended the situation photographed in the hallway, and he laid out the district’s mask policy in an email to parents:
“‘Under the COVID-19 protocols we have adopted, class changes that look like this may happen, especially at a high school with more than 2,000 students.’ He defended the fact that masks remain optional for both students and teachers, though teachers were afforded masks and face shields, saying, ‘Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them. What we will do is continue to strongly encourage all students and staff to wear masks.’”
(“Photo Of Paulding Students Packed Into Hallway Goes Viral,” https://patch.com/georgia/dallas-hiram/photo-paulding-students-packed-hallway-goes-viral)
We note that schools routinely enforce all sorts of policies, from technology agreements to rules about the dispensing of medications to dress codes, from the minimum required width of shoulder straps to whether there can be holes in jeans to whether and where piercings can be and what can be in them. While the superintendent of Paulding County Schools cannot muster the resolve to require masks during a pandemic, North Paulding High School was quick to enforce rules about not posting photos to social media and not using cellphones in the halls. The same school moved swiftly to suspend two students who posted the pictures of their crowded school hallways. One of the two, sophomore Hannah Watters, who took and shared the photo that got nationwide coverage, also posted a record of how many students wore masks in her classes:
(“Two Students Say They Were Suspended From Their Georgia High School For Posting Photos Of Crowded Hallways,”
Dear Readers, are these students – the masked and the unmasked – and school staff any safer at this school this week than they would have been on a beach or at a concert? Two recent studies suggest that children and adolescents are not at all immune to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, though they are less likely than adults to become seriously ill and to die. On the contrary, they do get infected; they can carry higher viral loads; and they can infect others. See “New Evidence Suggests Young Children Spread Covid-19 More Efficiently Than Adults,” https://www.forbes.com/sites/williamhaseltine/2020/07/31/new-evidence-suggests-young-children-spread-covid-19-more-efficiently-than-adults/#5e3b465719fd. What are the risks to these students? To their teachers and school staff? To their bus drivers? What are the health risks to Georgians in a state where masks are mostly still a personal choice, with a governor who wants to keep it that way?
Back to Tip O’Neill: We ask, who will Georgians hold accountable as cases rise? Local school boards, county politicians, representatives at state level? Governors? National Congress members, Senators and the White House?
On a wider scale, what happens if similar instances continue to surface and COVID case numbers jag upward not just in one school and in one district but across Georgia? Georgia already has hospitals that are struggling to cope. But schools are opening anyway with watered-down guidelines? Some have had second thoughts as teachers test positive for COVID-19 even before classes resume. Gwinnett County Schools had so many teachers test positive that the district has decided to revert to online learning after all (“Over 260 Georgia school employees under quarantine 1 day after returning to classroom,” https://thegrio.com/2020/08/05/georgia-school-employees-quarantine-returning-class/).
And what about other states? How many states will find themselves in a month or two having to declare and enforce shutdowns again? And what happens then to an already flagging US economic recovery?
Writer James Pethokoukis sums up the conundrum we find ourselves in, in most US states, including Georgia:
“So here we are, a society facing a terrible choice. But we have to choose. And virtual learning for all probably is not the right choice everywhere, especially if cases are falling and positivity rates are low. But that is not the case everywhere. And where the outbreak is more severe, government officials need to do whatever it takes – including mask mandates with penalties and more federal funding for rapid on-site testing and safety fixes – to contain and track the virus well enough to open schools ASAP. Then again, those things should have been done months ago. America’s disgraceful pandemic failure continues.”
(“The terrible trade-off of keeping schools closed,” The Week, https://theweek.com/articles/929500/terrible-tradeoff-keeping-schools-closed)
Tip O’Neill was correct. All politics is local. Also correct: The outcome of all politics is national.
PS. Lastly, some breaking news. Hannah Waters, the courageous young woman who was initially suspended for taking the photo of the crowded hallway, has had her suspension order reversed. In my view she should end up with scholarships, not suspensions. We’re glad she’s off the hook – no doubt administrators took a lot of heat for suspending her. School administrators, like politicians, do many things (and make others do many things) basically to cover their own asses. Please excuse my putting it bluntly. Thankfully, America still has that marvelous 45-word First Amendment to enable this young person and millions of others to help preserve our freedom. Here’s the link:
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