The Department of Homeland Security identifies 16 infrastructure sectors as “so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction, would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety.” Those sectors include agriculture, communications, electricity, financial services, health care, transportation systems, water, and even dams. The official list guides how local, state and federal homeland-security experts spend their time and resources. For each sector, a major federal agency is in charge of determining the best way to prevent essential functions from harm and support their recovery if necessary. (Water security falls under the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, and financial services under the Department of the Treasury.)
Bars are not on the list of essential sectors. But neither are schools. The lingering uncertainty about whether in-person education will resume isn’t the result of malfeasance, but utter nonfeasance.
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.
While Americans closed down their businesses in the name of flattening the curve, President Donald Trump pitted states against one another and drummed up opposition to public-health guidance. Had he done his job properly, the governors who spent March and April trying to outbid one another for masks and ventilators could have devoted more energy to education. Had Trump implored his supporters to wear masks and be patient, case counts might well be dropping across the country. Instead, as many states experience an upswing in the virus, plans to remake the education system—contemplating changes of a magnitude that would ordinarily take years to implement—are just now being written.
In my work in security and disaster management, I have advised a number of public and private entities about how to move forward during a pandemic. I am currently part of a consulting team advising the state of Massachusetts, where I live, specifically on its school reentry plans. As my children sleep in day after day, and their memories of their most recent in-person classes grow hazier and hazier, I am desperate for my state to reopen schools and hope it gets the details right. Massachusetts seems to have weathered one of the nation’s worst outbreaks reasonably well; infection rates have declined to the point that—with protocols in place to protect children, teachers, and staff—students might be able to go back to at least some normal classes. The harm they face from staying home is enormous. I would accept additional risk for the good of my three teenagers, and children younger than them would benefit even more from being in school.