The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Charlie Herman: What is at stake in [the debate about whether or not to reopen schools]?
Henry Blodget: So this is just a horrible choice. And I think just to provide the context of it, we are the richest and most competent generally country in the world. We’re nine months into this thing, and we’re now facing two terrible choices. The parents and the kids who want to go back to school and are saying it’s going to be a huge disruption if they don’t are absolutely right. On the other hand, everybody who’s worried about people getting sick, including not just the kids — and there does seem to be evidence that it’s harder for kids to get sick and maybe they don’t transmit as much as others do — but others in the school community and the kids bringing the disease home, it’s just a really, really difficult choice. And, and I think that it’s very hard to evaluate it outside of the context of the overall situation, and ultimately the first thing we need to do is actually have a United States national plan and get the pandemic under control.
Herman: And does that look like something that’s going to happen?
Blodget: No, not in this administration. Possibly after that, but even if we were to say, for example, just restart — write off the last nine months and say, “we’re going to start right now and we’re going to get the necessary PPE. And we’re going to build the necessary testing infrastructure and tracing infrastructure and have isolation for those who are sick.” We could start today and we could be done in two months. That does not appear likely to happen at all. So I think more likely we are going to struggle through this and we will have some schools open and some schools will close quickly and hopefully we will work our way through it, but it is definitely a plan C.
Herman: David, does it really come down to this choice between health and our economy?
David Plotz: I don’t think there’s a binary on schools. There are states between schools are open fully and schools are closed fully. And what is frustrating to me as a parent, as well as a citizen, is there’s been so little imagination applied to the question of what those in between states are. We haven’t sort of set out in any kind of systematic way, or even in a small experimental way to say, “okay, can we have open classrooms?” Like there are places where you could teach school outdoors. There are places where you could, really cut down class sizes. There are certain places where distance learning really works and certain categories of school where distance learning works.
But instead we have this kind of sludge of just like open, not open. We have to, you know, Trump with his rhetoric, everyone has to reopen and conditioning money for schools on reopening, and then certain other people saying “we can’t possibly reopen if anyone gets sick.” And so the black and whiteness has, has me frustrated and lack of imagination has me really frustrated.
Blodget: And just to jump in there, I think, you know, Mr. Plotz is exactly right. It is not one size fits all. And in fact, the intelligent defense of the United States’ pathetic national response to the pandemic is, “Hey, it’s a big country. You can’t just have a blanket policy for the whole country.” With respect to schools, that is intelligent. And there are certain areas of the country where it would likely be pretty safe to open schools. And there are other areas where we’re in the middle of a resurgence, where it would be almost certainly a disaster. And so an intelligent approach would go down to the county level, have a very clear plan about when we’re going to open based on the number of cases in the county and how we’re going to handle it when somebody tests positive. Again, these things are not mysterious. It’s not something we had to discover. They are known. There are other countries that are doing them exceptionally well. We could learn from those countries, but we are just sitting back and as Mr. Plotz said so eloquently, basically just putting forth the most boneheaded national policy conceivable.
Plotz: And actually, I mean, one thing to point out Henry is I feel like there’s a huge mistake that’s being made by our policymakers and an inadequacy and a failure starting with the president, but even at a lower level… I actually, this is an area where I feel that the media has not helped. We should have realized — those of us in the media should have had the kind of wisdom and foresight to say back in March, “actually schools are the number one thing to worry about.”//And we should have, those of us who are parents should have had that kind of wisdom to recognize like, “Oh, it’s not just a matter of getting through this like three months of distance learning that we had this spring”—
Herman: But we…I think people thought it was going to be, we’ll be here for three months. We’ll, we’ll hunker down. That’s what we saw in China. That’s what we started to see in Italy. That if you, if we really focus for a couple of months, we’ll be able to squelch this and then come back in the summer when the virus will die in the heat and we’ll come back in the fall and everything will be okay.
Blodget: That’s right. And which, by the way, to defend the media, was a perfectly reasonable assumption. Because to take into account in our thinking about what was going to happen, it actually would have been an outlandish statement to say, “the United States federal government will do nothing. Will declare victory, rinse its hands of the problem. And then ultimately give up.” That would have been inconceivable and was inconceivable. And it is why we are here. So, Mr. Plotz, as a member of the media, wants to take some blame. He can! But I’m laying it right at the federal government.
Plotz: Yes. For sure. They get more.
Herman: David, you guys make it very clear the reality of the situation that we’re facing right now. And I’m kind of reminded of the — I think it’s attributed to Winston Churchill. I think it was later attributed to Rahm Emanuel during the 2008 financial crisis that “never let a crisis go to waste.” What are the opportunities here amidst the coronavirus and education to really possibly re-imagine. I mean, what you’re talking about, having more imagination, what can we really do to try and push that forward? And what will it take to make that happen, to make education more equal, to make it work better?
Plotz: Well, for starters, we’re seeing the opposite, which is that what we’re seeing are the inequalities magnified. So the places where schools are most likely to reopen, or the kinds of schools that are most likely to reopen I should say are private schools. That are well-funded, that have amazingly well-equipped physical plants, and don’t have to deal with teacher’s unions, who have not been as helpful perhaps as they could have been during this, this time. And richer school districts have been able to do distance learning better because kids have better access to technology. And so what we’re seeing is the inequalities magnified.
I mean the best couple of ideas that I’ve been interested in, I’m interested to hear what you guys have heard in your world. One is there’s a, a lot more opportunity in the world for outdoor learning. And some of that will be formal instruction in outdoor classrooms, but some of it can just be experiential. The second is this idea of, especially in the midst of the employment crisis that we have and the university crisis that we have, is a massive cadre of para-teachers that instead of having, you know, a few teachers aides we try to get thousands and thousands of teachers aides. So if we can’t have classes of 25 people, but you could have small groups of six or eight that could be overseen by these para-teachers. And I’d love to see that. And I think that’s something that could continue past the pandemic.
Blodget: (laughs) Outside classes would be terrific in a lot of parts of the country in September and maybe into October. Then if we’re not finished, we’re done. No one’s going to be outside in January and February, at least in some parts of the country. And yes, if there are opportunities to now realize as a country that we can be more flexible with attendance in school, this is certainly something a lot of businesses that have the good fortune of being able to operate without their teams in a particular location have discovered. We can all be much more flexible. We don’t all need to go into an office for eight hours a day in a particular place. But I don’t see it in school. The social experience in school and the in-person teaching experience is a really important part of our education system. And in fact, one of the only things that is commendable in a recent CDC report that was put out about how to reopen school is observing that in-person school is very important and beneficial.
It is, there is no question, but I don’t see a need to reinvent schools. And I also don’t think we have the time to do it. We need to actually get rid of the pandemic and get our kids back into school. And then we can talk about what we learned and maybe improve from there.
Herman: But is it too much to wait for a vaccine? Is it too much to wait for the virus to really get down to lower levels to get schools back open again?
Blodget: In my view, a competent federal government could solve this crisis in two months and it might not even involve another lockdown. We never really locked down. We had this pathetic sort of attempt, worked in the Northeast. The rest of the country was chomping at the bit to, to reopen. We reopened too early, but it seems in other countries, and even in states here that masks work. I don’t think we have to wait until we get a vaccine.
And I think to David’s earlier point, which is very important, I think a lot of schools opening, it will work. It will be fine. In other countries where they’ve opened schools. Most of the schools are doing fine, but you do occasionally have a big outbreak. And what most countries have that we do not have is they’re starting with a very low number of cases. And so when they get an outbreak, they can get on it immediately. They can isolate everybody. They can have tests that get back to you that day, as opposed to eight days later in the United States, just pathetic. They have hospitals that can handle incoming patients because they actually have PPE because they’ve built it, they’re just in different situations. And so unfortunately for us, the stakes are higher. And if we just say, “you know what, hey, just be tough. Let’s go back and just open schools.” If we have several outbreaks at once, it’s going to be very difficult to deal with. And that’s what makes it just such a risky and fraught decision.
Herman: I mean, I hear your frustration there, but I’m also just thinking, what’s the likelihood if we look at the track record of the past several months that this administration in the next two months is going to do what you are outlining? And if we then are realistic that they are not, then, then what are we doing? What are we going to do?
Blodget: Look, the northeast with zero help from the federal government did finally get a handle on the coronavirus, New York city and New York and New Jersey and Connecticut were in a really rough way. It was very scary back in February and March and April, but we did ultimately get religion. People did start to distance. They started to wear masks and at least for now, the situation is in good shape. It is manageable. If the rest of the country does that, and my hope is that in fact, they, the one small silver lining of suddenly seeing this resurgence around the country is that the rest of the country will now get religion. They will realize, you know, “Hey, this, this could come to us. This is not something that’s just happening to all those terrible people in New York. So we need to get ahold of it.” And if you look at the recent statistics, it is possible that the United States has actually hit a new peak and is now starting to decline again. And that is the optimistic view. It depends how fast it declines. This is the way I think with schools, you’ve got to go county by county, and have a good plan for how to handle it.
Herman: David, who do you think ultimately should make the choice about when schools should reopen or if they should stay closed?
Plotz: There’s not one decision. It’s a, as Henry just said, it’s a decision which is made at an extremely local level. And at the local level, school boards differ in different places, but it should be at the, at the kind of county level. The superintendent of schools for a county or school district is probably the right person. That person is close, knows the individual schools, knows the capacity of those schools and is responsive to local public pressure. I worry about making categorical statements that this should be, you know, the teachers must decide, or parents must decide, or the federal government must decide it’s, the superintendents are going to have the most constituencies and can take those things into account and presumably, make a decision and be held responsible in a way that Betsy DeVos is never going to be held responsible if there’s an outbreak in a school district in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Herman: I mean, parents obviously have uh, input in deciding whether or not they want to send their kids back to schools if they reopen. Uh, you made a comment about teachers and teacher’s unions. Do they have a say?
Plotz: Of course they have a say, of course they, their views are very important and you cannot expect people to do their job well if they don’t feel safe, and if they don’t feel cherished and valued in the profession that they’re doing, which teachers have not been. That said, I was talking to a physician friend of mine yesterday and she was saying, look, she didn’t sign up to be at the front lines of COVID either. Like nobody signed up to be at the front lines of COVID. And just because—
Herman: Yeah, but at least a physician theoretically knows how to prevent spread of disease. I mean, that’s part of their job.
Plotz: Well, yes and no, but like there’s tons of people we have discovered who have essential work that is putting them at risk. There are people who are home health aids, or people who pick up the garbage, clean things in our homes, uh, clean things in institutions, prison guards, like there are all kinds of people who are in essential positions who have risks, who don’t want to be exposed to COVID, who don’t want to take risks, and our responsibility as a society with teachers is to make sure, like we give them as much information as possible that we make sure the most at risk teachers are exposed the least, and we are as careful as we can be with the science, but I don’t think you can kind of categorically allow teachers to say, “Oh, we can’t possibly be put at risk.” Or “if there’s one case in our school, we can’t be expected to reopen.” It has to be a balance. And I feel like the, the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers on Tuesday morning authorized teachers to strike in the event, they don’t feel safe. And that may or may not be a wise decision. I don’t know enough about it, but the rhetoric that I feel coming out of teachers in this moment, I don’t think is as positive and affirmative and pushing for their kids in the way that I wish it was.
Herman: Henry, in the end, is there a right choice when it comes to deciding whether or not to open a school or to send your kids back to school?
Blodget: Yes. On a country level and local level, absolutely. We, we have enormous fights in this country about what the role of government is and what the role of states is and what the role of the federal government is. This is a classic example of something where a strong and competent federal government could have saved the country a huge amount of pain and suffering and gotten control of this.
Plotz: Tell it! Tell it!
Blodget: And we should not even telling this con- conversation at all. And we blew it and we are still aggressively every day blowing it. It’s not too late. We could actually do something and be back to normal by October with everything under control. But we’re choosing not to do that. Instead we’re choosing just to shout over each other “open” “closed.” But I do think that individuals are gonna have to make decisions. We’re fortunate to be able to do this at the college level where some university administrations are saying “We’re going to open.” And a lot of the professors are saying, “Well, that’s great, but I’m 65. I’m at risk. I’m teaching remotely. If you want to try to fire me, go ahead and fire me, but I’m not getting in a classroom with a bunch of super-spreaders talking at me for two hours.” So this is something people are going to have to make individual decisions, and they’re going to. Even if schools open, you’re going to have a lot of people say “I’m not comfortable” and hold their kids back. And other parents are very justifiably going to say, “I can’t take it anymore. I have a job. I’m going to take the risk and send my kids.”
Plotz: My real final thought about this is that the point I keep coming back to is that we have to remember that not having children in school is a tax on our future. It is enormously costly to these children who will grow up to have a weaker education, to be more weakly socialized, to then later on have, be less able to compete in the global economy, to get worse jobs, to have worse health outcomes. And that is a cost that we, as a nation, are going to pay later. It’s not simply, oh, parents just want to get back to work and they can’t deal with their kids anymore. It is we are choosing health today over health tomorrow in some fashion. And we have to remember that every day that kids are not in school is a day that they are degrading, that they’re losing opportunities that they need to become the healthy, productive, happy adults that we all want our children to be.
Herman: David Plotz is editor at large, a Business Insider and host of Slate’s political, Gabfest, and Henry Blodget is the CEO of Insider, Inc. Thank you both for joining.
Plotz: Thank you!
Blodget: Great to be here. Thank you, Charlie.
Insider Audio’s reporter roundtables are available exclusively to Business Insider subscribers. You can subscribe to our narrative podcast, “Brought to you by…,” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Julia Press, Corey Protin, and Kristen Maurer. Sarah Wyman is the Executive Producer.