Many Californians say schools need to re-open now. But no one has had the guts to open all schools, and all grades, and send all kids back to class.
That’s why our entire conversation about school reopening is beside the point. So-called grownups talk about when, or under what conditions, we might reopen. But we haven’t answered the question of who—amidst all the fear and politics—will actual pry open the schoolhouse door for every California child.
It won’t be the federal government; President Biden has effectively abandoned his pledge to reopen all schools in 100 days.
It won’t be state government. The Newsom administration love to release frameworks and plans for reopening, but if you think the governor will execute a major operation like school reopening, then there’s an unemployment check in the mail for you.
It won’t be local governments. Our counties are consumed by their pandemic-era public health obligations. Our cities are criticizing and suing school districts, but they can’t legally force classes back into session. Our school districts do have the power to reopen, and some have managed limit restarts of elementary schools, but mostly they’re caught between ever-shifting guidance from other governments, union opposition, and divisions among parents.
Of course, teachers’ unions, our state’s most powerful political force, could force a reopening. But with their members able to work at home, these labor groups will keep pushing back the timelines for return—until all living beings in the Milky Way galaxy have been vaccinated, or the Rapture. Whichever comes first.
So, let’s face reality. If our state is ever going to resume universal public education, we Californians will have to outsource the task.
And there is only one entity with the scale and scary ruthlessness to reopen California schools:
This isn’t a modest proposal. Outsourcing school reopening to Amazon perfectly fits our state’s COVID-era strategy: leaving the hard work to somebody else. Our elected leaders declare mask and social distancing rules, but refuse to enforce them, leaving compliance to store employees and regular citizens. State and county officials celebrate vaccinations, but outsource the job of getting shots in arms to Blue Shield of California, even though it’s not a health provider.
By the same token, Amazon is not an education business, but it has the delivery network to get all the necessary protective materials to schools quickly. (Maybe it could even get science-denying teachers to vaccination centers and then classrooms). Amazon also operates efficiently—so a school reopening contract wouldn’t break the budget.
But the real reason California needs Amazon for this chore is its scary ruthlessness, its willingness to ignore criticism and rules in the service of delivering on its promise.
No one gets in its way. Amazon owns the political class—just look at its success in using donations and lobbying to win government subsidies—so it doesn’t have to worry about politicians’ challenging its school reopening operations.
Amazon, famous for crushing small business competitors, might be our best bet to shut down scofflaw retailers, restaurants, and other entities that, by not complying with COVID regulations, contribute to the community spread that threatens school reopenings.
And Amazon, having successfully fought unionization of its own employees in every corner of this country, would probably revel at the prospect of putting California teachers and their unions in their place.
Because the company is so accustomed to being loathed, Amazon—worth a cool $1.65 trillion as of February 12—could be useful as a scapegoat for all of California’s fear and anger over school reopening. Instead of the state government and local school districts continuing to blast each other for school delays, and instead of parents and teachers attacking each other on Zoom calls, we could all agree to blame Amazon.
I suspect Amazon would step in and do this if asked. Amazon recently wrote President Biden to offer “to leverage our operations, information technology and communications capabilities and expertise” in this emergency. And given its diminished public reputation, including questions about how it treats its warehouse workers, Amazon would likely seize such an opportunity to build some good will.
Few school leaders will ever admit this publicly, but they would be delighted if Amazon stepped in to handle reopening. Such an intervention might be the only way to save a California education system that is falling apart. School enrollment has seen record declines in the pandemic, and many families with school-age children are leaving the state. Even stalwart supporters of public schools are now talking up private schools or school vouchers.
In other words, California faces its own school choice: Outsource school reopening now, or watch its schools crumble as families outsource their children’s education somewhere else.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.