In the fall of 1918, the Spanish flu hit Philadelphia and St. Louis. Philadelphia allowed public gatherings to continue for days after the first case appeared. St. Louis, by contrast, implemented “social distancing” measures just two days after the first case there was reported. St. Louis had a significantly slower spread and a lower mortality rate; Philadelphia was hit hard.
Today, about a century later, America — and Chicago — awaits with bated breath the full brunt of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has already sickened well over 1,000 people nationwide in this country. The respiratory virus began its spread in China in December, and has since resulted in ongoing outbreaks in Italy, South Korea, and Iran.
In Chicago, it’s time for decisive action before it’s too late. There is currently no vaccine for the coronavirus, and it is virtually inevitable that many people will be sickened. But experts say the goal must be to “flatten the curve” of cases, spreading them out over time so that the health care system does not become overwhelmed. Social distancing is the main recommendation to flatten the curve and buy valuable time. That means banning large gatherings. Banning parades and sporting events are a good start, but these steps are likely not enough. No one doubts that the economic impact of dramatic social distancing measures will be devastating. But we can’t afford to be like the town mayor in the movie Jaws who refused to close the beaches because it would hurt the tourism industry, even as shark attacks claimed more victims.
In our view, as part of these necessary measures, Chicago Public Schools should close, at a minimum, all high schools under its jurisdiction, and shift to online learning indefinitely. We do not minimize the chaos and harm that shuttering school buildings would cause for many students. Those harms would be enormous. There can be no disputing that in-person learning is far superior to online learning, and that many students find a place of welcoming and belonging at school that they can find nowhere else. But that is not inconsistent with the further proposition that, of the concededly bad options available, closing schools seems to us the least bad option at this time.
Numerous colleges and universities evidently agree. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, and many more have canceled in-person classes and moved to online learning (or plan to do so imminently). To be sure, there are costs that a public school district must bear that are not felt so strongly by institutions of higher education when school buildings are closed. Most importantly, elementary school children will often need someone to watch them at home, an enormous strain on many working parents. Also troubling — even for high schoolers — is the issue of food. Many students, both at Payton and throughout CPS, rely on the free breakfast and lunch provided every school day.
As for food, however, we are confident that CPS could figure out a solution. Perhaps they could implement something along the lines of their summer meal program, or the system they used during the teacher strike last fall. And to the extent that worries about childcare for small children are delaying a decision to close schools, CPS should at least close high schools now. We see no compelling reason not to. With modern innovations like Khan Academy and Google Classroom, teachers and students have more digital resources at their fingertips than ever before. Online classes are no doubt inferior to in-person ones, but we are not persuaded that the switch would completely derail learning, at least for the vast majority of students. (A 2013 study found that 92% of CPS sixth through 12th graders have Internet access at home, and that number is likely higher now. Admittedly, there are definitely some students who still lack Internet access, so individual accommodations would need to be made.)
The virus’ devastating progression in Italy is instructive. The current U.S. trajectory is looking disturbingly similar to Italy’s, which started off slowly but over a few weeks has ballooned to well over 10,000 diagnoses and hundreds of deaths. Hospitals in Italy are said to be nearing the breaking point, and doctors and nurses are beginning to face horrible triage decisions about how to utilize scarce health care resources. The government there mandated yesterday the closure of nearly all businesses nationwide. The U.S. could well end up more like Italy in a matter of days. The best time to take serious mitigation steps, experts agree, was yesterday — and, failing that, today. If we wait like Italy did, the quarantines and restrictions will need to be more draconian later on.
Some might dismiss school closures as an overreaction. We understand this concern, but we do not share it. Washing hands can only do so much good when people are sitting next to each other in classes for seven hours a day. And while it is true that young people are generally less vulnerable to the coronavirus, we have an obligation to avoid spreading the virus to protect the most vulnerable people among us — from elderly grandparents to siblings with asthma or weak immune systems.
We cannot afford to wait. Mayor Lightfoot, close the schools.