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 (https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/flight-egypt-23652) 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. (https://archive.org/details/brooklynmuseum-o4440-the-flight-into-egypt-la-fuite-en-gypte).

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Epiphany
Religious Reflections

Epiphany

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 (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.

frankincense

Magi with a golden box filled with Frankincense. Frankincense is the hardened resin of the Boswellia tree. This is frankincense from Omani which is said to be the best in the world. It a beautiful spicy warm citrus aroma that is long lasting.

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)

Magi
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Manger
Religious Reflections

Christmas

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

Advent

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.

Bethlehem
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Covid Classroom
Education

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?

Classroom

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.

Student

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.

Conclusion

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.

Sources

American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.aap.org.

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.https://www.cdc.gov.

Centers for Disease Control. "Operating Schools During COVID-19: CDCs Considerations." CDC.gov. 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." NBCNews.com. Sept. 11, 2010.

Gupta, Sanjay. "Why I Am Not Sending My Kids Back to School." CNN.com 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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