Common Cents & Opening Schools on July 17, 2020

July 17, 2020, by John Norris

Last night, as I was finishing the second section of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the commentators on the television began discussing the reopening of schools. As I mentioned last week, my wife and I have gotten into something of a routine during the pandemic: I read on my end of the couch and she watches the news on the other. Fortunately, I have the ability to block out ambient (or uninteresting to me) noise.

However, reopening schools is a topic we have discussed on numerous occasions at the house. My wife, who is a pediatric audiologist, sees a steady stream of children as a part of her job. Conversely, there are days when I don’t lay eyes on a child under the age of 18, days on end even. So, inarguably, she would be more attuned to the nuances and potential pitfalls in reopening schools before ‘we’ find a vaccine for COVID19. How do you enforce social distancing in the classroom? On the playground? In the lunchroom? Make sure children wash their hands? Wear masks? Keep teachers and other school employees from being infected? Deal with a sick child? A sick parent? Sanitize the classroom as the end of the day? Ensure someone actually does it? Shoot, keep children from touching their mouths, noses, walls, desks, lockers, each other, toilets, etc.?

The bricks in the wall of worry are numerous, and I completely understand the reticence she (and others) might have about opening schools ‘too early.’ It will be a Herculean effort, if not impossible, to open schools ‘on time’ and not have an increase in COVID-19 cases, and no one has to be negligent. It will just be the expected outcome from congregating a large number of people in a confined space during a pandemic. People will get sick, period.

Unfortunately, as I told my wife this morning, I don’t think there is an option: schools simply have to find a way to open their classrooms as close to on time as is possible. Not doing so wouldn’t be fair.

In order to come to this conclusion, you have to ask yourself the following: what is the purpose of school, of schooling? If you think it is to provide relatively stable employment opportunities for literally millions of people across the country, you might be inclined to keep the doors closed until it is ‘safe to go back inside.’ After all, the public education sector employs 2.232 million individuals at the state level and another 7.375 million at the local level. That is close to 10 million workers! Do you/we/they really want to put them in harm’s way? Let alone the children? Fair enough.

However, if you think the purpose of the school system is to train young people, young Americans, to be productive members of society and to learn some of the skills they will need as an adult to support themselves, there is no other option: open the doors, and I mean physically. Fannies in the seats, and all of that.

Now, the kneejerk reaction some might have to that contention is: “why not open remotely? Have online or distance learning until there is a vaccine or better treatment? While this might not be perfect, it is a much safer alternative and we are talking about people’s lives here!” Again, fair enough.

The problem is there are simply too many children who fall through the proverbial cracks in this scenario, and they are the ones can most ill-afford it! The numbers are staggering, and they might not compute to the people who would make the argument the previous paragraph. Quite simply, there are millions upon millions of school-aged children who don’t have access to either a desktop or laptop computer at their house, let alone broadband connectivity.

Having done any number of WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Team, and other ‘remote’ meetings, I would argue the following: 1) a desktop and/or laptop are almost imperative in order to get ‘the most’ out of the presentation, and; 2) some form of broadband or highspeed Internet connectivity is absolutely necessary. I couldn’t imagine attempting to complete an entire semester of schoolwork on a mobile phone and/or dial-up access. Possible? Sure, I suppose, if you have a good data plan. Probably or likely? Absolutely and unequivocally not, and I can’t imagine anyone could take umbrage with these contentions unless they were inclined to disagree with me in any event.

So, who has a fixed broadband subscription (of any sort) or lives in an area which provides fee internet? You already know the answer: rich people who live in the suburbs. In 2017, fully 92.1% of 5-17-year old students whose family lives in the suburbs and make in excess of 185% of the poverty threshold have access. Okay. So, who doesn’t? Only 60.1% of the same aged students who fall below the poverty threshold do. It is the worst in rural America, where only 54% of students living in poverty have access to broadband. Combined, 3.804 million children living in poverty (39.9%) couldn’t even attempt to take online classes from home because they don’t have access to reliable internet.

More? Okay, 2.657 million students whose families make between 100-185% of the poverty threshold (27.49%), the official near poor, wouldn’t be able to attend online school…if, indeed, reliable, fixed broadband access is an issue. Source URL below.

https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_218.70.asp

Then, you know, there is the question of whether the household even has a computer or laptop, as hard as that may be for many to imagine. However, it isn’t all that uncommon, by any stretch of the imagination. In 2017, fully 83.3% of children ages 3-18 lived in household with a desktop or laptop. Here is how it breaks down by race: White (89.9%); African-American (72.0%); Hispanic (73.8%); Asian (94.0%); Pacific Islander (72.6%); Native American (64.7%), and ‘two or more races’ (87.0%).

Then there are the educational attainment and family income demographics. I will spare you all the nitty-gritty and sum it up thusly: “children in rich, well-educated households have much higher access to a laptop or desktop than children in poor and poorly educated families.”

https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_702.10.asp

But don’t take my word for it. Consider the following from the Pew Research Center from an excellent piece by Monica Anderson and Andrew Perrin entitled “Nearly one-in-five teens can’t always finish their homework because of the digital divide.”

 

These broadband disparities are particularly pronounced for black and Hispanic households with school-age children – especially those with low household incomes. (The overall share of households with school-age children lacking a high-speed internet connection in 2015 is comparable to what the Center found in an analysis of 2013 Census data.)

This aspect of the digital divide – often referred to as the “homework gap” – can be an academic burden for teens who lack access to digital technologies at home. Black teens, as well as those from lower-income households, are especially likely to face these school-related challenges as a result, according to the new Center survey of 743 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 conducted March 7–April 10, 2018.

At its most extreme, the homework gap can mean that teens have trouble even finishing their homework. Overall, 17% of teens say they are often or sometimes unable to complete homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection.

This is even more common among black teens. One-quarter of black teens say they are at least sometimes unable to complete their homework due to a lack of digital access, including 13% who say this happens to them often. Just 4% of white teens and 6% of Hispanic teens say this often happens to them. (There were not enough Asian respondents in this survey sample to be broken out into a separate analysis.)

 

So, who falls behind the most when school is ‘remote’ or isn’t open all? Rich kids from well-educated families who live in the suburbs? Or poor children from well-educated families who live in the inner cities and rural areas of the country? As the articles and chart(s) suggest who are the most detrimentally impacted when the school goes ‘online’? White kids or African-American and Hispanic children? Hey, these are just facts and figures.

It doesn’t matter what data set, website, research, or article you use, the conclusion will be the same: the ones who will be MOST hurt, who are most likely to fall behind, if schools don’t open or only open remotely are those who can afford it the least…the most vulnerable in our society. You could argue we already don’t do a great job educating this segment of the population. So, what happens when we don’t educate them at all? For an indefinite or nebulous timeframe? Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19 and/or it is ‘safe to go back inside’? When is that going to be? Next month? 3 months from now? 6 months? Next school year? When? Give me a date, a proverbial red line in the sand. But indetermination? That doesn’t cut it.

Consider this commentary from a Nsikan Akpan in an article published in National Geographic and posted to its website on April 10, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/why-coronavirus-vaccine-could-take-way-longer-than-a-year/#close

 

Drug companies and universities are now racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, with at least 62 efforts currently underway, according to the World Health Organization. Experts are optimistic that a vaccine will prove successful, based on early evidence that coronavirus patients can produce antibodies, the proteins in blood that attack and neutralize viruses.

Much of the excitement has centered on Moderna Therapeutics, which had an early prospect ready for clinical trials just 42 days after the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus was released. But while public officials and news reports were quick to cite this as a record-breaking development, the biotechnology underlying this drug has existed for nearly 30 years, and it has never yielded a working vaccine for any human disease. (Requests for comment from Moderna Therapeutics have not been answered.)

If the past is any indicator, the world won’t have a coronavirus vaccine for more than a year, probably longer. The mumps vaccine—considered the fastest ever approved—took four years to go from collecting viral samples to licensing a drug in 1967. Clinical trials come with three phases, and the first stages of the current COVID-19 trials aren’t due for completion until this fall, spring 2021, or much later. And there are good reasons to allow time for safety checks. Some preliminary vaccines for the related coronavirus SARS, for instance, actually enhanced the disease in model experiments.

“A year to 18 months would be absolutely unprecedented,” says Peter Hotez, dean at Baylor University’s National School of Tropical Medicine. “Maybe with the new technology, maybe with throwing enough money on it, that’ll happen. But we have to be really careful about those time estimates.”

One major hitch in developing a COVID-19 vaccine is that no medically proven predecessor exists for any type of human coronavirus. This despite the fact that the 2002 SARS and 2012 MERS outbreaks, both caused by viral cousins of the new coronavirus, were warning shots that claimed about 1,600 lives.

 

Even though the article is a few months old, I am not sure how much has fundamentally changed. Besides, the point is pretty clear: 12-18 months would be ‘unprecedented,’ to get a vaccine through the necessary trials and out in usage. Unprecedented. So, do we wait for the best-case unprecedented or hope the pandemic just kind of fizzles out, understanding we are ‘locking down’ for an indeterminate amount of time…probably measured in quarters and years, as opposed to weeks and months? Or do we get on with it and open the schools on time or close to it?

If you have read this far in this very long newsletter, you can guess where I stand. It is unfair to too many of this most vulnerable in our society to NOT do everything we can to open the school doors as soon as possible and even sooner than that. I completely understand this is a massive, thankless task, but the alternative is even more massive and thankless, if not unethical.

Hey, there is enough inequality in the world and our country already. The events of the last several months would seem to bear this out. So, why would we knowingly do anything, or not do as the case may be, which would engender even more inequality? It doesn’t make sense to me.

This morning, my wife heard me out and admitted she understood my logic, finally. That isn’t to say she agreed with me about opening the schools on time, oh no. However, after 26 years of marriage, understanding my logic on something? Good times, my friends, good times; even better than reading Robert A. Heinlein down on my end of the couch.

 

Have a great weekend!

 

As always, nothing in this newsletter should be considered or otherwise construed as an offer to buy or sell investment services or securities of any type. Any individual action you might take from reading this newsletter is at your own risk. My opinion, as those of our investment committee, are subject to change without notice. Finally, the opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of the reset of the associates and/or shareholders of Oakworth Capital Bank or the official position of the company itself.