Thich Nhat Hanh
World Religions

Buddhist Spiritual Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Earlier this year (2022), the world lost a great spiritual leader as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh died at age 95. Nhat Hanh's home or root temple was Tu Hieu Temple near the city of Hue in central Vietnam. He was from the Thien school of Buddhism, which most westerners are more familiar with its Japanese name of Zen. Nhat Hanh was a peace activist, teacher, prolific writer, inter-faith dialogue participant, translator, and purveyor of Buddhism to the West.

Thich Nhat Hanh was a significant activist for nonviolence and peace. With his commitment to peace and nonviolence, Nhat Hanh writes:

We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if the powerful countries would reduce their weapons arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply in the weapons, we see our own minds—our prejudices, fears, and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of the bombs are still here, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women (Living Buddha, Living Christ, pp. 76-77).  

Nhat Hanh was instrumental in getting Martin Luther King, Jr to speak out against the Vietnam War. In return, in 1967, Nhat Hahn was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by King

Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term "engaged Buddhism," which sought to apply Buddhist ethics to the broader contemporary world. This was a logical step as one of the two central norms of Buddhism is compassion. So, instead of monks and nuns retreating to monasteries or laypersons simply internalizing their religion, engaged Buddhism argued that Buddhists need to be active in the world to relieve suffering and establish justice. Nhat Hanh continually reminded Buddhist practitioners of this:

If while we practice, we are not aware that the world is suffering, that children are dying of hunger, that social injustice is going on everywhere, we are not practicing mindfulness. We are just trying to escape (Living Buddha, Living Christ, p.83).

Consequently, Nhat Hahn was active in the peace and deep ecology movements over his lifetime. He was also a vegan, and considered abstaining from animal-based food and products as a nonviolent practice toward animals.

Nhat Hanh's peace activism cost him in personal terms. His opposition to the Vietnam War, especially America's involvement, put him at odds with South Vietnam's leadership. In 1966, the South Vietnamese government took advantage of his travels abroad and banned him from returning home.

After the collapse of South Vietnam and the unification of Vietnam under communist rule, Nhat Hahn fared no better because of the ruling government's atheism. No more interested in letting a world-famous Buddhist monk return to their country, Vietnam continued his exile.


Foremost, Thich Nhat Hanh was a teacher. He was known affectionately as 'Thay,' which means teacher. He traveled the globe giving speeches and teaching at retreats. If you are even aware of the word "mindfulness," then Nhat Hanh has impacted you, even if you have never heard of his name.

No one is more responsible for developing and spreading the concept of mindfulness and its practice than him. Consequently, Thich Nhat Hanh is often referred to as the "father of mindfulness."

While Nhat Hanh comes from the Zen school of Buddhism, he drew from various forms of Buddhism and even Western psychology to develop the modern form of meditation practice that has come to be known as mindfulness.

In 1982, still prevented from working in his home country, and by then, a world figure, Nhat Hanh helped establish the Plum Village Monastery near Bordeaux in southern France. It became the largest Buddhist monastery in the West, with more than 200 monastics in residence and attracting over 10,000 visitors a year. Nhat Hanh was a major influence on the Western practices of Buddhism.

Plum Village Monastery

Plum Village Monastery, Bordeaux, France

He was very successful in making Buddhist thought accessible to people worldwide. He built bridges between psychological sciences, modern healthcare and ancient Buddhist practices.

While Thich Nhat Hanh's work did much to spread Buddhism in the West, he was less interested in converting people and most interested in finding common truths among the world’s religions. He translated Buddhist ideas into concepts of universal spirituality and found similar ideas in other religions. Nhat Hanh wrote:

When young people come to Plum Village, I always encourage them to practice in a way that will help them to go back to their own tradition and get rerooted. If they succeed at becoming reintegrated, they will be an important instrument in transforming and renewing their tradition. After an interfaith retreat in Santa Barbara, one young man told me, "Thay, I feel more Jewish than ever. I will tell my rabbi that a Buddhist monk inspired me to go back to him." People from other traditions said the same thing (Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 89).

Not surprisingly, Nhat Hanh was known for his involvement in interfaith dialogue. He became friends with Martin Luther King Jr, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan. He also dialogued with Pope Paul VI on peace issues.

In 2005 the Vietnamese communist government finally allowed Nhat Hanh to visit his home country. During his visit, he was allowed to travel, teach and publish. He was also allowed to visit his root temple Tu Hieu Temple in Hue.

In 2018, Nhat Hanh received permission to return to Vietnam permanently. There he returned to the Tu Hieu Temple, where he died on January 22, 2022, at the age of 95.

Thich Nhat Hanh and I share an alma mater. He earned the joint Master of Arts in Religion from Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in 1963, and I received the Master of Divinity degree from Union in 1990.

Nhat Hanh was a prolific writer who published over 130 books, including more than 100 in English. He is one of my favorite spiritual writers, and his thought has influenced me profoundly. I would especially recommend Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Living Buddha, Living Christ, and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.

In "Like a Leaf: We Have Many Stems," contained in Peace is Every Step, Nhat Hahn tells about an experience he had one day while in a park. The passage seems especially appropriate upon his passing.

One autumn day, I was in a park, absorbed in the contemplation of a very small, beautiful leaf, shaped like a heart. . . .

. . . I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, "No. During the whole of spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don't worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, 'I will see you again very soon.'"

That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from that leaf (pp. 116-117).

Thich Nhat Hanh has and will continue to nourish millions upon this earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh
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World War III
International Ethics

World War III Has Begun!

World War III has begun because Russia is at war with the US.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created the most significant foreign policy crisis for the United States since World War II. President Biden has handled the situation with skill and expertise, especially in uniting NATO. The policy he is pursuing is a careful balancing act of doing much to support Ukraine while not drawing NATO into direct fighting, which could escalate into World War III.

However, laudable the aims of seeking non-military solutions and avoiding escalation of the violence, this approach is misguided. It presumes we can prevent a war (World War III) that has already begun. Whether we want to admit it or not, and although it has not been officially declared, World War III has begun: because Russia is at war with the United States. Most importantly, we need to start acting as if World War III has started!

Why do I say that World War III has already begun? First, Russia's attack on Ukraine is not simply against Ukraine but against the world order. Ukraine has been an independent country since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In a popular vote in 1991, the Ukrainian people supported independence, where 92% voted for independence. Neither Russia nor any other country has the right to invade the sovereignty of an independent country that poses no threat to itself. Such an attack is an attack on every independent nation in the world. It is an attack upon us, and it cannot be allowed to stand.

Second, by its invasion, Russia has continued to violate its specific commitments to respect Ukraine's independence and sovereignty. The Biden administration has drawn a clear line that the US is obligated to and will defend every inch of NATO territory but claims we do not have a similar obligation to Ukraine since it is not a NATO country. Regrettably, such a focus on Ukraine's non-NATO status, ignores the commitments the US and Great Britain made to Ukraine in 1994.

At the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a large nuclear force was located within Ukraine. With much pressure from the United States and Russia, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and capabilities and become a non-nuclear state. In return, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States provided Ukraine with security assurances codified in the Budapest Memorandum signed on December 5, 1994.

Ukraine War

IRPIN, UKRAINE - Mar. 09, 2022: War in Ukraine. Chaos and devastation on the outskirts of Irpin. Damaged church and burned car as a result of the bombardment of a peaceful city. Photo Credit: ID 243063684 © Palinchak |

Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014 and of Ukraine this year violates one of the assurances made: Ukraine's independence, sovereignty, and existing borders would be respected. Since Russia has violated this, both the United States and Great Britain have a moral obligation to assure and thus defend Ukraine's independence, sovereignty, and 2014 borders.

Third, recent public statements indicate Putin and Russia are acting as if they are at war with those assisting Ukraine. True, there has been no military engagement between Russian and NATO forces. But, Putin himself claims and acts as if we are at war. On March 5, 2022, Putin stated that he considers the sanctions on Russia "akin to a declaration of war." On April 15, 2022, Russia, through diplomatic channels, warned the US that continued military assistance to Ukraine could have "unpredictable consequences." If we are to take Putin at his word—and in this case, I see no reason we should not--then from Putin's and thus Russia's perspectives, most of the world is already at war with Russia.

World War III has begun and national leaders must begin acting like it. Our policies, statements, actions, and strategies must switch from trying to "avoid" World War III to answering the question: What strategy will lead to the best outcome for World War III?

There is genuine danger in every step we take and in every step we do not take.

Writ large, the best outcome is twofold: first, we repel Russia's military operations in Ukraine and and second obtain international recognition for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty, and 1994 borders. This requires us to provide Ukraine with more advanced weapons and consider if and when to provide direct military assistance. Yes, such steps are fraught with danger. But given that Russia is at war with us, there is genuine danger in every step we take and in every step we do not take.

Danger in Every Step

What makes policy calculations so difficult is that we cannot and do not know the mind of Vladimir Putin. Consequently, to answer the question "What strategy will lead to the best outcome for this war?" we need to consider a number of things.

First, we must consider what Putin will do if it becomes clear that he is losing the war. To some degree, we already know the answer to this question. His original plan was to take over the entire country of Ukraine, including the capital city of Kyiv, and then set up a puppet government sympathetic to Russian' (and by that, I mean Putin's) positions. Russia has failed at that strategy.

As it became clear that Putin was losing the war (i.e., not meeting the original goals), Putin began a new strategy to invade Ukraine solely from the east/southeast into Ukrainian areas in which Russian speakers are the majority. Russia has been attacking these areas since the beginning of the war. In addition, since 2014, Russia has occupied and annexed Crimea away from Ukraine. In addition, Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists have occupied sections of the Donbas and Luhansk provinces of Ukraine, and fighting in those areas has been constant since 2014.

Let's assume that this strategy is also ineffective, and Russian forces are essentially pushed back into Russia. This scenario may be the most unpredictable because we do not know what extremes Putin might do if it unfolds. He could use chemical, biological, or even small nuclear weapons in Ukraine to try to scratch out some sort of victory.

Ukrainian Soldier

Ukrainian soldier in front of Ukraine's flag.

The war crimes that Russia has already committed in Ukraine (and previously committed in Syria and Chechnya) reveal that Putin is willing to go to extremes. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that a weakened Putin who could not defeat Ukraine would choose a direct fight with NATO regardless of what aid NATO has provided to Ukraine.

Of course, an irrational Putin could do almost anything, including starting a nuclear war with the West. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about this scenario other than to clarify that such moves would mean an end to him and Russia. Tragically, it would also mean an end to the entire world as we know it. As long as nuclear weapons curse our world, there is nothing we can do to prevent an irrational leader with nuclear weapons from using them. Nevertheless, our actions in Ukraine do not change this reality one way or the other. Therefore, it is not relevant when determining our strategy in Ukraine. We must presume that either Putin is not so irrational or that if he were to become so irrational that there would be sufficient internal controls on Russia's nuclear weapons, including that those in Russian command and control would be unwilling to follow such insane orders.

I have spent most of my life arguing that nuclear deterrence is an inherently unstable strategy for dealing with nuclear weapons. The only actual protection is complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, while the world has reduced the number of nuclear weapons since the height of the Cold War, it has never moved away from the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. We can only hope that the doctrine continues to prevent nuclear war. Moreover, my point is that none of this situation changes, no matter the support provided to Ukraine. It is always the case that any irrational leader in possession of nuclear weapons could take such a terrible step.

Second, we must consider what Putin will do if he is successful in Ukraine. Since his first military strategy has failed, this second possible scenario is that Russia captures sections of territory in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. We have every reason to believe that if that were to happen, Russia would at some time use these "liberated" territories to capture even more territory. This approach is a much slower process than Putin initially tried, but it could be even more effective in achieving Putin's goals.

War Damage

Destruction in Ukraine caused by war with Russia.

It will be challenging to stop Putin if this slow expansion process works. Likely Moldova would be next. It lies south of Ukraine and is not a NATO member nation. Moreover, like Ukraine, it has a small area controlled by Russian-backed separatists. So, Moldova would face the same situation that Ukraine now faces.

Next would be the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. There is a strange geographic anomaly in this area – a piece of Russia exists just south of Lithuania, and it is not connected to the rest of Russia. No doubt Putin would at the very least want a land bridge to reconnect that piece of Russia to the motherland. The Baltic states were once part of the Soviet Union, so Putin's "logic" would apply to these nations as it did to Ukraine. The complication is that these three nations are part of NATO. But if we let Putin get that far, he would likely conclude that the US (for instance) will not send our sons and daughters to fight for these small nations even if they are part of NATO. What would be next? Poland?

Biggest Danger is a Putin Success

The most dangerous thing we can do is to let Vladimir Putin succeed. If he does succeed, there is no reason to believe he will stop. Moreover, his success will be an example to other authoritarian leaders on achieving their goals. They are never satisfied. History provides powerful examples that appeasement only leads to more death and destruction. In hopes of avoiding World War II, Hitler was allowed to annex the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. A year later, Hitler's Germany invaded Poland.

As frightening as it may be, we cannot allow a nuclear threat to stop assistance to Ukraine. It is doubtful that Putin would use strategic nuclear weapons against the West, but it is conceivable, though still unlikely, that he would use a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine. However, suppose Putin is allowed to win because we feared he might use nuclear weapons. Doing so would demonstrate to other authoritarians that threatening the use of nuclear weapons is an effective way to obtain their objectives. China could take Taiwan with a nuclear threat. North Korea could take South Korea with a nuclear threat. What might their next step be if they achieve these goals? What about others who have nuclear weapons?

Because the US, the West, and the world have so much to lose if Russia wins, we should do everything to help Ukraine win. If not, it will be American troops on the front lines before we know it, perhaps when Russia goes on to try to take a NATO country. While the dollar amount that we have already given in aid to Ukraine may sound significant, it is not in the face of war. We were especially weak before and at the beginning of the war. Despite our intelligence on what Russia was up to before the war was spot-on, our intelligence assessment of Ukraine's ability to compete in the war was terrible.

Because the US, the West, and the world have so much to lose if Russia wins, we should do everything to help Ukraine win.

These assessments indicated that Ukraine might only last a few days. Consequently, we did not want to provide large numbers of weapons to a losing cause, especially if those weapons would fall into Russian hands. Since then, we have seriously upped our game in terms of quantity and nature. However, it is not enough!

Artillery, bombs, and missiles are destroying Ukraine from the sky. To win the war, Ukraine needs more advanced weapons to counter this and engage Russian forces. We should be providing fighter airplanes and Patriot missile defense systems, and perhaps other weapons. Putin will not like this, but he is unlikely to do anything to bring NATO directly into the fight. Moreover, the threat of Putin defeating Ukraine is more significant. We can keep World War III limited to its present dimensions, or the fighting will become worldwide in scope.

Afterword On Nonviolence


The above argument might not be surprising coming from a hawk, but I am a dove. As a long-time advocate of nonviolence, an anti-war activist, and a social ethicist with specialties in international ethics and the ethics of nuclear weapons, I am surprised by the position I take in the above post. With such a history and background, I typically warn against military solutions and urge nonviolent steps such as diplomacy and negotiation.

However, by making this argument, I have not abandoned my commitment to nonviolence and peacemaking. There are nonviolent things that can be done in times of war. A parallel historical example is Danish resistance disguised as collaboration during World War II. The Danes knew they could not stop a German invasion, so they let the occupation occur. However, Danish leaders frustrated Nazi goals by negotiating, delaying, and obstructing. At the same time, a resistance underground countered Nazi objectives by conducting sabotage, labor strikes, and rescuing almost all Danish Jews.

Indeed, some nonviolent steps contributed to the failure of Putin to capture the capital of Kyiv by invading from the north via Belarus. For the logistical support of the invasion, Russia planned to rely on the train system in Belarus. However, anti-war activists in Belarus sabotaged train lines while internet hackers disrupted the train's command and control systems. In addition, Ukrainian citizens messed with the road signs in northern Ukraine, doing simple things like changing the arrows that pointed the way to Kyiv.

At the beginning of a war, those who reject nonviolence often ask, "Now, what could nonviolence do?" As the above reveals, more than most think! But more importantly, the time of war is not when nonviolence is most effective. Nonviolent strategies could and should have been applied in the past, making the war in Ukraine less likely. Most of these have to do with not letting Putin become so powerful. Western Europe should never have become so dependent on Russian oil and gas. They could have done so by using other sources and moving much more quickly to green energy. The West should have punished Putin much more severely for previous wrong actions instead of merely slapping him on the proverbial wrist. The world could have done much more in terms of nuclear disarmament. The West should not have let Russian oligarchs, with their ill-gotten gains, hide and invest such money in the West. Western companies should not have invested so much money in Russia. These are just a few examples of the nonviolent steps that could have been used, and they would have decreased the likelihood that we would currently be in this situation.

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Religious Reflections


Do you still have your Christmas decorations up? For you efficient ones, there is a tradition in some places which holds that it is bad luck to still have them up at Epiphany. But for the rest of us, perhaps they should still be up because the Christmas season ends with Epiphany. No doubt, you know the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but many of you may not know what it is referring to other than silly/extravagant gifts. The song is about the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany.

Western Christianity celebrates the holiday of Epiphany as the day when the magi arrive to find the baby Jesus in a house in Bethlehem. (Eastern Orthodox churches have a different understanding of Epiphany related to Jesus' baptism.) In the western church calendar, January 6th is Epiphany, but since not all church holidays fall on Sunday, you may have already celebrated it last Sunday or perhaps next Sunday (Epiphany Sunday). Also, January 5th is Twelfth Night, traditionally a feast night celebrating the end of Christmas. However, you may better know that name from Shakespeare's play than from any feasting practiced on the night of January 5th.

For those with decorations still up and specifically those who have a manger scene: Are there wisemen (magi) in your manger scene? Well, they really should not be there. According to scripture, the magi neither visit the manger nor arrive on the night of Jesus' birth. What most of us know as the Christmas story is really a mashup of the two different versions from Luke's and Matthew's gospels. (Mark and John contain no birth of Jesus story.) There are no magi told of in Luke, which is where the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the manger story are contained. Mathew has no journey to Bethlehem, manger, or shepherds.

Perhaps we can understand Matthew as a follow up to Luke's birth and manger account. In Matthew's telling, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem. That is where the magi find the baby Jesus--in a house.

We do not know who the magi were or precisely from where they came. Despite hymns such as "We Three Kings," we do not know the number of magi who arrived at the house in Bethlehem. We also certainly do not know their names. The traditional names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar come from a sixth-century manuscript. The traditional number of "three" magi comes from the three gifts they present.

I have heard all kinds of jokes about the gifts to the tune of "frankincense, just what a baby needs?" Or "how about a blanket or diapers?" However, these are appropriate gifts for a king. And they most likely played a crucial role in the next, and unfortunately often ignored, part of the Christmas story which I will discuss in a future post.


All that Matthew says is that the magi came from "the East." But Matthew does tell us that they have observed a special star, so we know they were astrologers who saw meaning in the night sky. These clues have led many scholars to surmise that they were Zoroastrians who lived in the area that we now call Iran and had a learned class who studied the stars. Zoroastrians were also likely the first religion to fully develop the concept of monotheism and influenced the beliefs of Jews living in exile in Babylon (now Iraq) during the sixth century BCE. The Jews then passed the concept of monotheism on to Christianity and Islam.

The central importance of Epiphany for Christians is two-fold: First, the magi's coming to greet this child is a recognition of the nature of this baby. The nature of the gifts from the magi also represent this. This is no ordinary child as the night sky does not foretell typical births. For Christians, Epiphany is a celebration of the incarnation of God in this baby boy named Jesus. Second, no matter the religion of the magi, they were not Jews. Consequently, the magi's coming to celebrate the birth of Jesus is seen by Christians as an indication that the Jewish baby named Jesus will have an earthly mission that is not only for the Jews but also for Gentiles.

It is a shame that most Christians overlook this significant holiday. Epiphany is the holiday that celebrates who and for whom this baby was born: God incarnate comes for the whole world.

Have a Blessed Epiphany.

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Mathew 2:1-12 NRSV)

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COVID-19 and Schools

Someone’s Child – Some Child’s Teacher:

COVID-19 and Schools During Fall 2021

Virtually everyone agrees that we need schools open in face-to-face modes this school year. The harm to students trying to learn "at home" instead of "at school" is too great not to open schools. Nevertheless, having schools open increases the risk for students, faculty/staff, family members, and the public. Therefore, we must do everything we can to mitigate the risks at schools.

Without universal masking and vaccination, some will die from COVID-19. Odds are it will not be your child or your child's teacher, but it will be someone's child, and it will be some child's teacher!

Without universal masking and vaccination of those eligible in schools, millions of students, faculty, and staff will contract COVID-19. Some of those contracting COVID-19 will become seriously ill and be hospitalized. Some of those hospitalized will die from COVID-19. Odds are it will not be your child or your child's teacher, but it will be someone's child, and it will be some child's teacher!

The public perception that COVID-19 does not threaten children has always been false. So far, 5,292,837 child COVID-19 cases have been reported, and children represented 15.5% of all cases in the US. Because of the higher percentage of older Americans that are now vaccinated, currently, 40% of the nation's COVID-19 cases are people under the age of 20, and the largest demographic group contracting the virus is children under 10. There have been 500,000 pediatric cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association data (as of September 9, 2021) shows that 20,436 children have been hospitalized, and 460 have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic. This data about children and COVID-19 is , admittedly, incomplete. The hospitalization data is only from 23 states and New York City. The mortality data is only from 43 states, New York City, Puerto Rico, and Guam. So, the actual numbers are higher, perhaps twice as high for hospitalization and a bit higher for deaths.

The reopening of schools this past Spring led to outbreaks both within schools and somewhat more broadly. The same has been true as schools have opened this school year. Today we have a real threat to schools remaining open because of new Covid-19 variants, particularly the delta variant. Nevertheless, much of the nation is acting as if nothing is going on. In some hard-hit states, governors have issued bans against mask mandates and vaccine mandates. In other places not so hard hit, many schools are operating without masks. A vocal minority of parents claim that they should be able to decide whether their children wear masks in school. This is a mistaken proposition because not having their child mask impacts not just their child but everyone with which that child comes into contact.

The anti-masking and anti-vaccine voices are putting the nation’s children at risk and threaten the continuation of face-to-face schooling. Our actions—or in this case inactions—could well lead us back to virtual education—something that would be terrible for the students of America.

The anti-masking and anti-vaccine voices are putting the nation’s children at risk and threaten the continuation of face-to-face schooling.

There are currently more than 100,000 persons hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States. That is more than last August when there was no vaccine yet available. Several states, especially southern ones with low vaccination rates, are running out of ICU beds or even general hospital beds. I would suggest that you not have a severe heart attack or car accident in states such as Florida, Alabama, Texas, Idaho, or Alaska. You may not be able to get an ICU bed, or you may have to wait hours just to get into an emergency room.

The situation is quite dire as we open schools this Fall. In places where schools have opened, there are tens of thousands of students in quarantine and hundreds of classrooms and whole schools that have had to close because of the large number of COVID-19 cases. Thousands of teachers and school staff members have already become infected. More children are becoming hospitalized and even dying from the pandemic than in the past.

masked schoolgirl

A few examples illustrate the difficulty of having schools open. A California elementary school did everything right. Masks were required, and they practiced social distancing. However, a teacher took her mask off for the read-aloud story time. Within days, half of her class tested positive for the delta variant of COVID. At Connally Junior High School near Waco, Texas, two social studies teachers have died from COVID-19 after school reopened for this school year. In Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, a 13-year-old healthy boy died from COVID-19, and the school he attends did not require masks.

This threat is why it is so significant that everyone eligible for vaccination gets vaccinated, including children under 12, when they become eligible. The threat is why we need universal masking in schools. The more that the virus circulates, the more that it mutates, creating new variants. Dangerous variants such as delta already exist, but the more the virus circulates, the more variants that will emerge, and they could be much worse than delta.

Masked graduates
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The Pandemic Is Not Over

Covid-19 is Still a Risk to the United States

With the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declaration that fully vaccinated persons no longer need to wear masks or socially distance, many American adults act as if the pandemic is over. Many who are not fully vaccinated seem to think they also no longer need to wear masks or socially distance. The decreasing vaccination rates also suggest that the nonvaccinated believe that they do not need to get vaccinated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Covid-19 pandemic is still a significant threat not only globally but also here in the United States.

Because I have previously written on the subject, I will use the reopening of schools, which has taken place this Spring and even earlier, as an object lesson. Most school districts now have at least a face-to-face option available to students. Moreover, the negative impact on students not being "in school" is significant enough that there is near unanimous support for having schools return to some form of face-to-face instruction.  However, public support alone does not make it the right decision.

Have You Considered?

When the US opened schools this Spring, there was evidence and factors that should have given us some pause and caused us to question whether this was the right time. Admittedly, much of the following evidence is only anecdotal and draws heavily from Midwest, the part of the country where I live. I am not suggesting this evidence is determinative, but I do believe that the general public should have been made more aware of these things as our nation sent our children and youth to school during the ongoing pandemic. More importantly, it should serve as a warning why, even as restrictions are lifted, those in the US should not act as if the pandemic is over.  Instead, we need to act consistently with the realization that we are still operating in a hazardous world.

  • First of all, between 400 and 500 people still die from Covid-19 each day in the United States.
  • The CDC has provided excellent advice on how schools can be open safely in a document titled Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Prevention. However, I have seen estimates that only 4-6% of the nation's schools can meet these guidelines. Moreover, with states ending mask mandates (one of the safety requirements in the document), many schools are no longer requiring students to wear masks while at school. The governor of Georgia recently signed an executive order prohibiting all schools in his state from making mask-wearing mandatory.
  • The public perception that Covid-19 does not threaten children is false. According to the CDC, during April, 9% of Covid-19 cases were age 12-17 and according to the CDC's Dr. Sara Oliver, adjusted estimates (statistically correcting for under-reporting), over the entire course of the pandemic, 22 million children age 5-17 have been infected with coronavirus, or 19% of all Covid-19 cases in the United States.
  • In addition, data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association reveals that as of April 29, 2021, 11,637 children have been hospitalized, and 213 have died from Covid-19 since mid-August 2020, when schools began to reopen.
  • Moreover, the CDC had reported that youth (age 12-17) hospitalizations for Covid-19 has been increasing since March.
  • Childcare centers in both Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have recently had outbreaks. Those contracting Covid-19 included some of the preschool students, staff, and family members.
  • The opening of most schools in Michigan this Spring appears to have been a significant driver of expanding Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state. More specific analysis indicates that the spread was among those participating in non-classroom activities, especially school-based and club sport, rather than in the classroom.  Further study suggested that the spread was not centered in practices or games but with what the students did after practices and games, such as hanging out and eating together. Parents with children currently participating in sports and activities might want to consider the risks and exactly where the risk is largest and make appropriate decisions about their children's actions.
  • The Milwaukee Public Schools reopened most of its schools on April 14. Two weeks later, the district had to close five entire schools and 51 classrooms at 22 other schools because of coronavirus infections. Most of the infections were among students, but a significant number of staff members were also infected.
  • Finally, there is the threat from variants. This threat is why it is so significant that everyone who is eligible for vaccination gets vaccinated, including children when they become eligible. The more that the virus circulates, the more that it mutates, creating new variants. Dangerous variants already exist, but the more the virus circulates, the more variants will emerge. In some parts of the world, Covid-19 is still (or again) out of control, including places in Asia where the pandemic was previously controlled. While it has not received much press in the United States, there is a crisis in the Osaka area of Japan, and the crisis is now spreading to other parts of the country. Some believe that the Olympics may yet have to be canceled. In Brazil, a variant is killing children five and under at an alarming rate.

There are still dangers for us in the United States from Covid-19; yet I fear many of us have become complacent, thinking the pandemic is over. The vaccines may well save us from our complacency if we get everyone who is eligible, including children, vaccinated. However, it would be a real tragedy if the move to open schools this Spring causes us not to have schools open come Fall. In any event, with the information above, we should now carefully think about our activities and those of our children/youth this summer.

School during Covid-19
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Flight to Egypt
Religious Reflections

The Rest of the Christmas Story

Christians usually leave out the "rest of the story" from the Christmas story. I am not talking about the fact that it will ultimately lead to Good Friday. While we tend to tell the Christmas story in an overly picturesque manner, Christians are well aware that the Christmas story will eventually lead Jesus to the cross. The issue that I will discuss here and what most Christians fail to remember is that Jesus' family had to flee the country soon after the birth.

This is my fourth and final post about the Christmas story. The previous ones were on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. I have previously discussed that what we know as the Christmas story is a mash-up or combination of Matthew's and Luke's accounts as they are only two Gospels that have any birth of Jesus accounts.  Luke has the journey to Bethlehem, the manger scene, and shepherds. Matthew has the visit of the Magi or Wisemen. The Flight into Egypt is only contained in Matthew and is a continuation of the Magi visitation. Luke's birth story also includes the circumcision and naming of Jesus and his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (see Luke 2:21-38).  Matthew does not contain these accounts, but presumably, they happened before the family had to flee to Egypt.

Here we will focus on Matthew's account of the Christmas story. In their search for whom the star had pointed, the Magi had first gone to Herod asking where the baby who was to become King of the Jews was to be born. Herod's advisors gave them advice on where to look, and Herod told them to return after they found the child so that he could then go and worship the child. However, after they found the baby Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, a dream warned them not to return to Herod. So, they returned to their land by another road.

Of course, Herod had no intention of worshiping this "supposed" King of the Jews. He was King of the Jews (duly installed by Rome). The story is a reminder to Christians that if Jesus is who we claim him to be, that he will always be a threat to the powers that be. No matter how good we think our nation is and how much we love our country, in some ways, it is still always "Rome." It means that for Christians, our first alliance must always be to God and not our country. We should not easily mix "God and country" because there will always be tension between them.  Moreover, every government expects that it be the first loyalty of citizens, which is unacceptable to God's people.

God knew the threat that Herod posed to the child Jesus. And so, Joseph received instructions to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt. While scripture does not say so, this is most likely where those impractical gifts that the Magi brought become useful. This is a poor peasant family. How could they afford to travel to Egypt and then remain in a foreign land for an extended time? No doubt, these gifts allowed them to finance this endeavor.

Why Egypt as opposed to another land? It is because Egypt, along with the Greeks and Hebrews, had the ancient concept of the "right to asylum" by which it would protect people who were persecuted by the government of their homeland. Most likely, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to apply for this protection when they arrived in Egypt.

(continued below)

Flight into Egypt

Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (circa 1916-1922). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum ( which states "The story of the Holy Family fleeing Herod’s wrath was a favorite of Tanner’s, who created as many as fifteen works on the theme. In this painting, Mary and the donkey are barely discernible, with the suggestion of a figure representing Joseph behind them. Moonlight illuminates the path for the family to follow. Tanner’s own experience of racism in the United States, which motivated him to move to Paris, may have led him to identify with the persecuted Holy Family."

The Christian Church later adopted the concept of asylum. An asylum seeker could find refuge in a church, on church property, or in a bishop's home. The Council of Orleans codified this practice in 511. Over time, western nations adopted the church's practice into their national law protecting persecuted people from other lands. In 1948 the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined the ideas stating, "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

Recently, there has been discussion about those seeking asylum in the United States. Some of the same Christians who claim to want to make America into a Christian nation have wished to put extreme limits on the U.S. asylum program if not eliminate it. I suspect that many do not know the history explained above. Christians should be exploring how to live out the Christian duty to welcome the stranger. The right of asylum protected Jesus, and consequently, Christianity from its very early days has seen providing asylum as a duty of Christians.

Once Herod discovered that the magi had tricked him and not returned to reveal to him the child's identity, Herod took a terrible action. He sent his soldiers to kill all the children age two and under, in and around Bethlehem. Consequently, we now know that the threat to Jesus was genuine, and that is why it was crucial to get Jesus to asylum in Egypt. The story also reveals what rulers will do to keep power. While it may not be a slaughter of children, we may see parallels in what contemporary leaders will do in their attempts to remain in power.

The early church developed the Feast of Holy Innocents to remember the massacre of these children. It is celebrated by Western Church (almost exclusively by Catholics) on December 28 and by Eastern Churches (Orthodox) on December 29. I am not sure how those became the dates for the celebration. Perhaps it was an attempt, like this post, to remind Christians that this is part of the Christmas story.  However, I think it is an unfortunate date because the event does not occur until after Epiphany (the arrival of magi) which is celebrated on January 6. It would have been better if the church calendar had placed the date for this remembrance after January 6.

Initially, this feast day was focused on martyrs and recognized these children as the Christian Church's first martyrs. It also focused on all the martyrs of the church now over the two millennia of church history. Consequently, it is a good time for us to think of those who have died for a cause, be it within the Christian faith or not. Who might you want to remember and lift up as we explore the story of the massacre of the innocents?

Unfortunately, over time, the Feast of Holy Innocents transformed into one of the "feast of fools" days in the church calendar. It became a kind of "children's day," a day of merrymaking for children, in which children got special rights that they did not usually have. For example, in some places, a boy would be elected bishop for the day, parents would surrender power, and in monasteries, the youngest member became the abbot or abbess for the day. While one can see the connection to the original purpose in that letting children be children for the slaughtered children who never got to be children, I wonder if the problem of having such a sad remembrance during the twelve days of Christmas had something to do with this transformation. In more recent times, the focus has returned to its original purpose and focuses on martyrs.

In general Protestant churches have not celebrated the massacre of the innocents. However, in the 1850s, Protestant Churches in the United States began celebrating a Children's Day, typically on the second Sunday in June. Children's Day predates the celebration of Mother's Day and Father's Day. Julia Ward Howe started Mother's Day (ironically, she was the writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic) as an anti-war protest day in which Mother's vowed to never send their sons off to war again. Father's Day was started in 1909 as a complement to Mother's Day, which by then had lost its anti-war flavor. The protestant Children's Day never had a connection to the massacre of the innocents. Nevertheless, there may be a parallel with the transformation of Mother's Day from a protest day against war into a celebration of mothers. It is probably natural to prefer tame holidays as opposed to ones that challenge us.

After Herod died, God appeared in Joseph's dream and told him that his family could return to their homeland. But because Archelaus, Herod's son, was ruling in Judea, a dream warned Joseph that the area around Jerusalem (including Bethlehem) might not be safe. So, the family went north to Galilee and settled in Nazareth. Matthew tells us nothing else about Jesus' life until he begins his public ministry as an adult.

So now the Christmas story is complete. How might your understanding of Christmas be changed if we included this final part of the Christmas story in our celebrations of Christmas?

2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 "A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph[k] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." (Matthew 2:13-23 NRSV)

Flight Into Egypt 1923 Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. See information under the pervious painting above for information on Tanner.

About the painting at the top of this post: The Flight into Egypt (La fuite en Égypte) by James Tissot (French, 1836-1902) circa 1886-1894. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. (

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Religious Reflections


As we celebrate Christmas, let us remember what we are celebrating. The manger scene would not have been the beautiful one we depict. Instead, a young couple of color with the woman about to give birth are on the road but can find no place to stay. And so they seek shelter, most likely in a cave, where someone kept animals. Nowhere does scripture say it is stable. And in this dark and dirty place, the time of birth comes. There is no doctor, nurse, or midwife to help with the delivery. Men did not help with such things in Joseph’s culture, and so he would have known nothing of what to do. But there was just Mary and him. As terrifying as it must have been, with the pain, with the dirt, and with the blood, somehow the birth was completed. But then, what to do with this child? They had some cloth bands, so they used them to wrap this new child and laid him in a trough from which animals feed.

"Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:4-7 NRSV)

Jesus' Birth
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The World Awaits
Religious Reflections


The first season of the Christian church year is Advent. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

Advent is a season of "expectant waiting."

We wait. We expect something. Something better! In particular, the season is waiting for the birth of Jesus or, in other words, Christmas.

But most of us do not like to wait. Most of us are not particularly good at it. Most of us are no longer the child who can hardly wait until Christmas arrives to see what presents we will get from Santa and others. Instead, we fill the Advent season with mad Black Friday shopping, figuring out what gift to get each person, putting up the Christmas tree and other decorations, sending out the Christmas cards, wrapping packages, and preparing treats and other foods. Individually, some of these activities are pleasant if not favorites. But in total, they can leave us a stressed-out mess.

Some Things Take Time

We tend to do the same when expecting a new child, especially a first child, in the family. We gather and read books on how to take care of a baby. We get the baby's room painted and decorated. Then there is the purchase of a crib and a multitude of other items the new baby will need. We prepare birth announcements and compile the list of people to send it to. Others may host baby showers for us. Again, these are all good and often enjoyable things to do. But the rush of activity also hides our inability to wait.

This is not what Advent is trying to teach us. Advent teaches us to wait expectantly. In a word, "expectant waiting" is patience. The birth of a child is not going to come any sooner just because we want it to. Christmas is not going to come any sooner just because we want it to. We simply must wait. Yet, we can wait with hope.

Perhaps this terrible experience of COVID-19 can and is teaching us something about how to experience Advent. We so want it to be over, and things return to normal! But except for a few scientists working on vaccines, the vast majority of us can do little to help restore normalcy. Yes, we can take essential steps to make the impact of this pandemic less severe and doing so can save lives. But that is not the same as the pandemic coming to an end. For that, all we can do is wait. We can choose to wait patiently, even as our lives are disrupted. We can also choose to live in the hope that the future will be better than the present.

Advent is also the time in the church year, where Christians are to focus on Christ's second coming. It is evident in the scripture that the first Christians thought this event would happen soon, as in their lifetime. Today, across Christianity, there is a wide variance of beliefs about the nature of this event. But that is not relevant here.

The relevance is that here we are 2,000 years later, and that event has not yet happened. Nevertheless, Christians still in faith wait expectantly for that event. Even after 2,000 years of waiting, we still believe. That is patience. That is Advent.

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Covid Classroom

Should Schools Be Open During A Pandemic? An Ethical Analysis

Although schools have reopened around the United States, significant questions remain about how they should operate during the pandemic and center primarily on the mode schools should operate: face-to-face, online, or some hybrid of the two. Join me as we undertake an ethical analysis of this complex issue. We will limit our analysis to primary and secondary schools and not consider colleges and universities.

Before starting any ethical analysis, we must first clearly identify the approach and criteria that will guide our analysis. Even though it is not my preferred ethical system, most sound governmental policy decisions are rightly based on utilitarianism. In essence, utilitarian ethical analysis asks: What will result in the most good for the most people? In this case, it is appropriate to narrow the impact on people to the specific populations who are primarily impacted by the decision. For this analysis we will limit our analysis to those most directly involved in and affected by the decision: the students, faculty, and staff of schools and those in their immediate households. Standard utilitarian analysis requires you to look at the consequences to everyone. Nevertheless, neither the well-being nor the lives of school children should be sacrificed to achieve broader social goods. Consequently, our ethical analysis will not consider the economic impact of having schools open nor its impact on any political party or candidate.

In short, decisions about reopening schools should be based on what provides the most good for students, teachers, staff members, and family members of these groups. So how do we go about making such an ethical decision? We analyze and determine the likely benefits and costs of opening schools for students, teachers, staff, and their families and compare them to the benefits and costs of the other options.

Proper Utilitarian Analysis

A proper utilitarian analysis will adhere to the following four standards when determining the impact (costs and benefits) of each alternative solution.

First, utilitarian analysis is based on a fair and unbiased projection of likely results. It should not be based on what one hopes or wishes the results to be. It must also be free of political biases, including generalized claims about “how the world works.” For example, Congressional conservatives often argue that cutting taxes benefits everyone because cutting taxes stimulates the economy. A utilitarian analysis rejects using such a generalized belief about how the economy works and instead undertakes an objective analysis to determine whether a specific tax cut proposal would, in fact, stimulate the economy and whether the benefits of such a proposal would outweigh the costs.

Second, proper utilitarian analysis includes “both sides of the ledger.” That is, relevant positive and negative consequences of a proposal must be included. Oftentimes, advocates arguing for a policy will list all the benefits of those policies they support and the costs or negative impact of policies they oppose. Utilitarian analysis requires identifying the positive and negative impacts of all policies—whether one is advocating for it or not.

Third, utilitarian analysis anticipates and includes unintended consequences. This, too, can be difficult, but it is part of the consideration. Considering unintended consequences is necessary because often taking action in one area has unintended consequences in other areas. When one has the advantage such as the Congressional Budget Office such experts are skilled at doing this analysis. For the rest of us, we must ask, “Deferring to experts and full-time researchers when available, what are the various ways that the proposed policy is likely to impact those directly and indirectly involved?”

Fourth, proper utilitarian analysis accounts for the unknown. Such an idea may seem strange at first: How can anyone consider what is not known? Utilitarianism recognizes that “predicting the outcome” or future is fraught with uncertainty. Utilitarian analysis accounts for unknowns in three major ways. First, utilitarian analysis conducts research and consults with experts to determine what, even if not immediately knowable, can be determined. Second, when there are multiple possible outcomes, utilitarian analysis weights multiple likely outcomes alongside those that are certain. Finally, utilitarian analysis readily changes assessments when new information becomes available.

With this basic understanding of how to conduct utilitarian ethical analysis, let us move on to the analysis of reopening schools.

Benefits to Reopening Schools

Children need to be physically present in schools because children generally benefit from in-person learning. Their future depends on the education they receive in schools. Their education consists of the curriculum, but it also includes the socialization and life skills that children learn while being present in school.

Masked School Children

In recent decades, more and more children have been home-schooled and student enrollment in online schools has increased. Nevertheless, such forms of education are not practical options for all children since they are effective only when parents have the time and skills needed to lead and facilitate such education. And even if quality education does happen in the home, other activities must be arranged for those students to gain the social and life skills they need. For many students from low-income families, school may be where they receive one or two nutritious meals each day and other important services.

As a result, students are more likely to receive a complete quality education in face-to-face settings. The benefits are even more significant for students who do not come from middle- or upper-class families. Even when school districts have done a good job of providing computers to children from families who do not have such equipment; many such families still do not have the wi-fi to allow such computers to operate online-education. Pictures have emerged of children sitting on sidewalks near fast-food restaurants with their computers using the restaurant's wi-fi to do online schooling.

It is challenging to quantify the benefits of face-to-face schooling; however, it is probably impossible to overstate how immense these benefits are to students.

It is challenging to quantify the benefits of face-to-face schooling; however, it is probably impossible to overstate how immense these benefits are to students. Even if advocates of opening schools seem to have mixed motives, including, inappropriately, political ones, they are not mistaken about the educational benefits to having schools open in a face-to-face mode.

The educational impact to students not in face-to-face schools could put, especially students already disadvantaged, at an even larger life-long disadvantaged position. We already have an unequal society, not having schools open in face-to-face mode are far more likely to worsen rather than improve these inequalities.

Families would also benefit from having students back in face-to-face schools. The most obvious benefit is to the parents who would be able to return to work when their school-time responsibilities return to pre-pandemic levels. If schools were to reopen, parents who were unable to work due to child-care and additional classroom responsibilities in Spring 2020 would be able to work during school-time hours. At first glance, this might appear to help those at the lower end of the economic scale. However, I suspect that it is just the opposite. It may most impact middle-class and above parents who no longer need to juggle working from home and doing the child-care and child-education during the day. For lower-income families, the economic benefits only take place if there is full-time face-to-face schooling. Not many low-income employers will provide a flexible enough schedule to allow for hybrid modes or even the unpredictable schedules when schools start face-to-face, but then change modes and schedules because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the school. Also, many low-income families live in multi-generational households. If these parents still have jobs amid the pandemic, they have continued to work while other generations looked after children. Unfortunately, more likely is that there are no jobs for low-income people. However, overall, there is no doubt some economic benefits for families with the reopening of schools in face-to-face modes, but this benefit is probably not as large as the advocates of reopening claim.

There are societal benefits to having schools open in a face-to-face mode. However, as I set out above, these should not be a focus of analysis. For example, clearly there are economic benefits to opening schools. It probably opens some people to be able to work or to work more efficiently and ancillary businesses such as school bus companies and their employees can return to operations. However, even though such benefits exist, we should not include them in our assessment because our focus is on those  most directly involved in and affected by the decision (i.e. the students, faculty, and staff of schools and those in their immediate households).

The Cost of Reopening Schools

The most basic fact is that we do not know the COVID-19 dangers for students, faculty, staff, and their families for schools reopened in a face-to-face mode. There is just still so much we do not know about the disease. Any utilitarian ethical analysis must include large factors of the unknown into its calculations.

The most basic fact is that we do not know the COVID-19 dangers for students, faculty, staff, and their families for schools reopened in a face-to-face mode.

Opening schools at this time may be the equivalent of playing craps with the lives of the children of this nation as well as teachers, staff, and their families. Ethically, that is a difficult position to justify even though there are considerable advantages to having schools open.

Unfortunately, politics seems to be the driving force in some of the decisions. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts said that policymakers and not health officials should decide on school openings. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) put out guidelines for the safe reopening of schools, but President Trump did not like them and pressured the CDC to put out revised guidelines based on the political benefits rather than the best scientific analysis of the health factors. Such political moves say that the safety and impact on students, teachers, staff, and their families are not the primary focus, but quite the opposite, politicians seem willing to sacrifice these people in the name of other concerns. Even under a utilitarian analysis, that is unethical.

With so many unknowns, what can we discover about the cost of reopening schools?


The President has said that children are virtually immune from COVID-19. Factually, that is entirely incorrect. The only people who may be "immune" are those who have had the disease and recovered, and even then, we do not know how long that immunity lasts.

Early in the pandemic, children did seem to contract the virus less often than adults, and when they did, they appeared to have severe complications at a rate less than adults.

However, the apparent facts pointing to less risk for children from COVID-19 may be the results of other factors as opposed to children reacting differently to the virus than adults. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, both the raw numbers and the rate of infection in children has risen over time. We do not know the actual rate of infection among children because the testing of children has been so limited.

However, the apparent facts pointing to less risk for children from COVID-19 may be the results of other factors as opposed to children reacting differently to the virus than adults.

Moreover, children are likely to have had the least exposure to the virus because schools closed in the spring and children were mostly kept at home. That changes as we open schools in modes that include in-school instruction.

The tracking shows that since schools started to reopen in mid-August until the end of October there have been more than 400,000 new cases among children.  During the same time-frame more than 2,000 children have been hospitalized and 31 children have died from COVID-19

At least within the limited data we have for children, the CDC reports that children between ages 5 and 17 have the highest positivity rate of any age group (higher than 10%). The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association have jointly tracked the impact of COVID-19 on children. The tracking shows that since schools started to reopen in mid-August until the end of October there have been more than 400,000 new cases among children.  During the same time-frame more than 2,000 children have been hospitalized and 31 children have died from COVID-19.

This is not the impression of the risks to children that we have been hearing in the media, let alone from some politicians. Children are less likely than adults to get serious complications when they contract COVID-19; however, those who have severe complications and are hospitalized, about one-third end up in intensive care, which is the same rate as adults.

In a typical year, 400 children die of influenza (flu). At first look it may appear that COVID-19 is a much a lower risk than the flu for children. But that conclusion is unlikely to be correct, given other differences. There have been 131 COVID-19 deaths among children since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States. Those deaths are not from a full year of in-person school and last spring most schools were closed. Moreover, although we have a flu vaccine that significantly mitigates the outbreak among students, staff, and families, there is, as of yet, no COVID-19 vaccine. The flu is not a pandemic; COVID-19 is.

In addition, after having COVID-19, at least 570 people under age 21 have later developed the mysterious MIS-C, a multi-system inflammatory syndrome. This is another danger to children with schools open in face-to-face modes.

It appears the danger to children from COVID-19 is much greater than has been widely promoted by politicians and the media.

Then the question arises as to the degree to which children spread the disease to other children, faculty, staff, and their families. The early data on children as spreaders of the disease is inconclusive.

It appears the danger to children from COVID-19 is much greater than has been widely promoted by politicians and the media.

One study from South Korea, often cited on the topic, concludes kids ages 10-19 spread COVID-19 at the same rate as adults but that those under ten did not cause much spread. However, that was a small study, and its results may again reflect the fact children were not in school at the time, thus keeping the most sheltered from the disease. Also, claims that children will not be significant spreaders of COVID-19 are contrary to the experience of parents and teachers of young children who can testify that they are excellent spreaders of other diseases in the classroom and the household.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has found substantial community spread in many places corresponds with more infections among children. That would indicate the possibility that children can be efficient spreaders of the virus. Many teachers and school staff are in high-risk categories, meaning that if they contract COVID-19, they are high-risk for serious complications or even death. Many advocates of school reopening have pointed to the low risk to children (which the above shows is likely incorrect) but completely ignore the risk to faculty and staff. Then one must add the families of the students, faculty, and staff. Those would also include many high-risk members. There is growing scientific evidence that children, even as young as preschool, can spread the disease to teachers and parents. While outside the area that this analysis is considering, infected students, faculty, staff, and their families could also be agents of wider community spread of COVID-19.


So far, many of the places that have reopened schools have not gone well. While outside our considerations, colleges have probably had the most dramatic negative results. That may make sense as many college students are at school 24 hours-a-day living on or near campus.

Some colleges have returned to online classes for the rest of the semester, while others have moved to online class for a period until the virus can be brought under control on campus. On numerous campuses, entire dormitories, fraternities, and sororities have been quarantined. According to tracking done by the New York Times, there have been at least 171,000 cases at colleges since late July.  Also, at least five college students have died since the Fall opening of colleges including a football player at California University of Pennsylvania.

Across the country, primary and secondary schools which opened face-to-face have returned to online classes. In Mississippi, where most students have returned to school in face-to-face modes, one-half of the state's counties reported cases in their schools. These unsuccessful restarts do not bode well as more and more schools reopen. Also, I am aware of at least eight teachers and four school staff members who have died of COVID-19 since schools have opened. Getting exact numbers is difficult because the federal government is not tracking nor releasing information on the impact of COVID-19 in our schools.

Ethical Calculus

We are weighing the educational and socialization losses to students without face-to-face instruction versus the risk to the health and even the lives of students, faculty, staff, and their families.

There is much we do not know, and little that we can accurately calculate as we try to do the utilitarian analysis as to what is the right thing to do regarding schooling during this pandemic. At the most basic level, we are weighing the educational and socialization losses to students without face-to-face instruction versus the risk to the health and even the lives of students, faculty, staff, and their families.

At first blush, that calculation seems obvious: lives versus educational loss looks like an easy choice for life. But it is not quite that simple. Almost every activity involves risk, even the risk of death. Children die from flu contracted at school each year. Students, faculty, and staff members die from car accidents as they commute to school. Unfortunately, children die from shootings at school. While we do not usually think of it in these terms, it is not possible to make schooling (or any other activity) completely risk-free.

Education is crucial to a successful and happy life. So, the real question is, what is an acceptable level of risk to the health and lives of students, faculty, staff, and their families for the educational benefits of face-to-face school during this COVID-19 pandemic? How much damage to these population's health and how many lost lives are we willing to accept for the educational advantages of face-to-face schooling?

What is an acceptable level of risk to the health and lives of students, faculty, staff, and their families for the educational benefits of face-to-face school during this COVID-19 pandemic?

Reducing the Risks

To answer the acceptable risk question, we need to explore how to reduce the risk of students, faculty, and staff from contracting COVID-19 while they are present at school. Here we are addressing the way schools should be open. Individual parents may come to more restrictive answers about how much risk they are willing to submit their children to gain the educational advantages of face-to-face schooling. On the societal level, we need to accommodate such decisions. For instance, even if a local school decides to open face-to-face or in a hybrid mode, they need to provide an online option.

The CDC has put out useful guidance for reopening schools. Unfortunately, political influences have impacted the CDC. Media reports indicate they have underplayed the risks to children. Another place where I find that the CDC buckled to political pressure is that while it provided guidance, it ultimately left all decisions to the local level. That is shirking its historic scientific responsibility as it should have laid out minimum requirements for schools to be open while making additional recommendations on how to further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The CDC document does not make such a separation between requirements and helpful guidelines. Nevertheless, the contents of the CDC's documents contain the correct guidance and strongly influences my analysis below. 

Online School

The risks can only be reduced for schools when the local community has an acceptable level of infection. There is a clear scientific standard. The 7-day rolling average of the positivity rate must be 5% or lower. Anything higher means the community is at such a high level of infection that it is not safe for students, faculty, staff, and their families to have any face-to-face contact in schools. This would preclude hybrid models as well. When the community positivity rate is above 5%, the risks are too high for anything but virtual or online schooling.

Social distancing is a second way to reduce risks. In terms of schools, this means keeping students six-feet apart as much as possible. Social distancing is challenging to do, especially in urban schools. Because the United States has so seriously underfunded urban schools, classrooms are often overcrowded. In urban schools, this can mean 40 students in a classroom, making social distancing impossible. The best way to handle this is in a hybrid mode, in which only half of the students are present in a school at a time. The problem with this hybrid mode is that it creates an unrealistic workload for teachers. While the number of students per teacher does not increase in a hybrid mode, teachers have two classrooms to teach simultaneously: one face-to-face and one online. Creating twice as many engaging lessons and teaching both face-to-face and online every day is not sustainable or realistic. The hybrid mode done with any level of integrity would require twice as many teachers.

Third, masks are, absent a vaccine, the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While there must be exceptions for those with certain health conditions and specific students with disabilities, every other student, faculty, and staff member must always wear masks while in school buildings. The same is true while riding school buses or using public transportation while commuting to and from schools. Without masks, the risks are too high. With masks, combined with other measures, we can bring the risks down to acceptable levels. No school in the United States should operate without masks being a requirement. Doing so is unethical.

Fourth, regular hand washing reduces the risk of transmission of the virus. Consequently, frequent hand washing must be part of the routine of any school that is to be open. Teachers must stress the importance of hand washing at every grade-level, and it must be included in the daily schedule. Also, hand sanitizers need to be readily available throughout school buildings.

Hand Washing

The fifth way to reduce the risks when reopening schools is by cleaning and disinfecting the school buildings and objects. For most school districts, this will require more specialized cleaning agents and equipment and increased cleaning frequencies. All of this will require more resources, which is incredibly difficult for the most underfunded urban districts. However, the more proper cleaning that can be done, the more we reduce the risk to students, faculty, staff, and their families.

A sixth way to reduce the risks of spread is to ensure schools have modern and efficient ventilation systems. The Covid-19 virus spreads through airborne droplets. These come from the mouth and nose of humans. Most droplets fall to the floor within an area of 6 feet (the reason for social distancing). But this is not the case for all droplets, and they can stay in the air for extended periods. Proper ventilation systems can remove most of these droplets. Unfortunately, the under-funding of schools means that many school buildings do not have adequate ventilation. Some school buildings have such bad ventilation raising the risk to unacceptable levels. These buildings must not be used until upgraded.

The CDC has recommendations for other ways that schools can reduce the risk of transmission. These include recommendations about the water systems, modified layouts, physical barriers and guides, communal space, food service, scheduling, transportation, leave time, and training. The more these recommendations can be implemented, the safer schools will be for students, faculty, staff, and their families.


Online Learning

When one takes the time to do careful ethical analysis, one's initial position may change in the process. My beginning belief was that I did not think any schools should be open in a face-to-face mode during this pandemic.

However, in exploring the issues more carefully, I believe that opening some schools in face-to-face mode can be morally justified if they follow CDC guidelines related to transmission rates and take significant steps to mitigate transmission risks.

In weighing the various issues, the importance and value of face-to-face schooling is a large factor. Online schooling can be done well, but it takes a great deal of time to create quality online learning. Even when done at an excellent level, it misses the crucial social skills children acquire in school. Social learning is as important as the official curriculum to the development of our children and youth. A recent prediction by Dr. Anthony Fauci that, even with a workable vaccine, life will not return to anything approaching pre-COVID-19 days before the end of 2021 was incredibly significant. It would cause a huge impact on students' development to have schools closed during this entire school year and perhaps into the next. While we cannot quantify the amount of educational loss that our students have from not being in face-to-face schools, it is so large that we must do everything that we can do to have schools open.

However, we must make it clear: Opening schools will cause some students, faculty, staff, and their family members to get sick and die. COVID-19 is such an effective spreader that we cannot reduce the risk to zero. However, we must do everything possible to minimize the risks. It is unethical to open schools without doing at least the following.

Opening schools will cause some students, faculty, staff, and their family members to get sick and die.

  1. 1.
    The positivity rate for the area/city in which a school is located must be 5% or less, using a 7-day rolling average. If the rate is higher, there is too much of the virus circulating in the area to reduce the risks to an acceptable level. Schools must not open if the rate is above 5%, and they must close if they are already open until the rate falls to 5% or below. Schools must be in a virtual mode during these times.
  2. 2.
    Schools must provide as much social distancing as possible. In over-crowded schools, a hybrid mode may be the only way to achieve an acceptable level. Relief for teachers, including the hiring of extra teachers, may be required in a hybrid mode.
  3. 3.
    Masks must be a requirement in all schools that are open in face-to-face modes. At present, masks provide the best protection from the spread of the virus. Exceptions for those with certain health conditions and some special education students will need to be made.
  4. 4.
    Hand washing and the use of hand sanitizers must be included in the school schedule each day.
  5. 5.
    Schools must do regular and extensive cleaning and disinfecting using products proven to be effective against COVID-19.
  6. 6.
    To the largest extent possible, open schools must implement CDC recommendations for ventilation systems, water systems, modified layouts, physical barriers and guides, communal space, food service, scheduling, transportation, leave-time, and training.

In addition, an ethical response requires the federal government to provide massive aid to America's schools so that they can open or stay open. This aid does nothing to make up for decades of under-funding our schools, but it is required to meet this emergency. With COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn, states have little money to help, and they cannot do deficit spending; only the federal government can do this. The federal government's growing deficits are an issue that need to be addressed, but during a crisis with the lives of our children, teachers, staff, and their families at stake, this is not the time to worry about the deficit.


American Academy of Pediatrics.

Amy, Jeff and Feldman, Carole. "CDC Head Sticking To School-Opening Guides Trump Criticized." AP News. July 9, 2020.

Bolling, Cristina and Hubler, Shawn. "A Student Dies and a Campus Gets Serious About Coronavirus." New York Times. Oct. 5, 2020

Centers For Disease Control.

Centers for Disease Control. "Operating Schools During COVID-19: CDCs Considerations." Sept. 1, 2020.

Children's Hospital Association and American Academy of Pediatrics. "Children and COVID-19: State Data Report." Oct 29, 2020.

Edwards, Erika. "Kids at Day Care Spread COVID-19 to Parents and Teachers, CDC Says." Sept. 11, 2010.

Gupta, Sanjay. "Why I Am Not Sending My Kids Back to School." Aug. 12, 2020.

Hawkins, Derek and Iati, Marisa. "Coronavirus Infections are Rising in Children, CDC Says." Washington Post. Aug. 16, 2020.

Leatherby, Lauren and Jones, Lisa Waananen. "U.S. Coronavirus Rates Are Rising Fast Among Children." New York Times. Aug. 31, 2020.

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