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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Moral Question of School Reopening: Benefit, Burden and Cura Personalis

teacher wearing face mask imprinted with the words

teacher wearing face mask imprinted with the words "Welcome Back to School"

Charles E. Binkley, MD

Charles Binkley is the director of bioethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

One of the most common questions I have been asked lately is what I think about school reopening in the fall. This question has particular importance for me because my sister, and many of my close friends, are elementary and high school teachers and administrators. I believe that the answer rests not in scientific and medical data, as this would require trials and analysis for which there is simply not enough time, but rather a moral and ethical calculus.

Moral decisions require a consideration of benefit and burden. For some of the people who have to make decisions about school reopening, the crucial issue has been to weigh the benefit of in-person instruction against risk of infection in SARS-CoV-2. However, this ignores society’s moral duty to care for the entire child, in the Ignatian tradition, the cura personalis.

The Moral Standing of Children

Children occupy a morally distinct place in society. This is primarily because children are dependent on adults for their welfare. While the vulnerability of most children decreases as they get older, the majority of children affected by decisions about school reopening remain largely in need of adults. Another reason for the moral distinction of children is that harm that occurs in childhood may be difficult or impossible to overcome, and is thus carried into adulthood. Adults have a special obligation to ensure healthy childhood development. Finally, children are the future of our society. We have a responsibility not only to nurture and protect each individual child for his or her own sake, but all children for the greater good.

No Justification for Depriving Students the Benefit of School

Based on children’s distinct moral standing, any decision that deprives them of a benefit must be well justified. At the most basic level, school closures deprive students of the full benefit of intellectual development. One model predicts that children may return to class in the fall of 2020 having progressed only 70% of their previous grade level in reading and less than 50% in math during the previous school year. For the 5 million students learning English as a second language (ESL), distance learning tools are not specific to their needs, and family members are often not able to provide necessary translation. ESL students are already significantly less likely than their peers to graduate from high school after four years. Experts worry that if schools don’t reopen, even fewer ESL students will graduate.

School closings also prevent children from necessary social and emotional connections that foster their development. Failure of schools to reopen would deprive students of activities such as recess, organized play, and extracurricular events that have essential functions in their social development. Access to mental health services as well as social emotional learning curricula are also significantly impeded by distance learning.

While the health risks of reopening schools, for students, staff, families, and the community are not precisely known but much discussed, the peril to children’s physical health if schools fail to reopen is much clearer, though largely ignored. Many children access necessary health care services through school-based clinics. Schools provide programs such as asthma monitoring, immunizations, vision and dental care. In addition, schools provide necessary nutrition for over 30 million students who live with constant food insecurity.

Failure to reopen schools places a considerable burden on children with disabilities who often rely heavily on schools for speech, occupational and physical therapy. It is impossible for distance learning to adequately replace the individualized attention that trained professionals provide to address these students’ specific needs. These students are particularly vulnerable to regression in skills and functioning if schools fail to reopen.

Most grievously, if schools fail to reopen many children will face unchecked and ongoing emotional and physical abuse. Schools are a major conduit through which child abuse and neglect is reported. Alarmingly, child abuse reports have dropped significantly since the pandemic begin. This raises the well-founded concern that children who have been at home and without access to outside adults are being abused. Reopening schools may be the only opportunity these children have for their abuse to be stopped.

The Disproportionate Burden of Not Reopening

While all children stand to be harmed in some way by failure of schools to reopen, the burden is shouldered disproportionately by children of color, those living in poverty, and those in isolated rural areas. Many of these children were already behind their peers academically, and distance learning has widened the gap. These students are also more likely to depend on schools for their health care and their nutrition. Schools may provide the most valuable means through which these students are able to successfully develop into adults.

The Burden that Reopening Places on Children

Reopening schools places a relatively less serious burden on children. Risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 seems to be less in children than adults, and those children infected appear to exhibit a milder clinical syndrome, if any symptoms at all. While the role of children in transmitting infection is not completely clear, available data suggest that children are low risk. When we focus on children, the benefit of reopening schools greatly outweighs the risk.

Admittedly, this is a child centric argument for reopening schools. This focus is justified by the fact that children stand to benefit the most from schools reopening, and be harmed the most if schools do not reopen. Furthermore, reopening schools poses minimal risk to children. That is not to claim that other stakeholders are unimportant or do not deserve moral consideration. Their risks however can be mitigated more easily than can those of the student. Measures can be instituted in school systems to protect staff. Staff members who are particularly vulnerable to infection can be paired with students who either need or are more likely to thrive in a remote learning environment.

The Moral Standing of School Staff

Historically during a pandemic, health care workers have risked contagion based on their duty to serve, however society has not demanded the same of school staff. Nor have school staff enjoyed the vaulted status, including the principles of reciprocity and social worth in distributing treatments and vaccines. School staff who place themselves, as well as their families, at risk of infection for the benefit of students deserve the same benefits as health care workers. These staff and their families should receive priority if ventilator or treatment allocation were to be necessary, and they should be among the first to receive an effective vaccine.

Schools exist for the benefit of children, the cura personalis, and ultimately the common good of society. As such, any decision about school reopening must prioritize the immediate and long-term effects on children when weighing the potential benefits and burdens.

Aug 25, 2020