Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and Human Values Elizabeth Harman
Gerard Vong
‘We cannot blindly trust our government or school board leaders’

Policymakers, health-care providers, and ordinary citizens are grappling with ethical challenges presented by COVID-19. What are our obligations to others? How do we balance the risks to individuals and society? What’s an ethical response to the virus’s unequal impact on different communities? Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and Human Values Elizabeth Harman has agreed to answer readers’ questions on pandemic ethics — send yours to Tiger Ethics at or PAW, 194 Nassau St., Suite 38, Princeton, NJ, 08542. We’ll post selected questions and responses to

I’m struggling to work from home with two small children, and have been looking forward to kindergarten starting for my oldest. But now that I’m faced with a choice between in-person or virtual kindergarten, I’m torn. How do I decide what’s right? How do I balance his needs with my work responsibilities, his teachers’ health, and our community?  

I know what you are going through because I myself have two young children, ages 4 and 10, and my husband and I have found the choice of whether to send them to school very hard. We parents are in a tough situation! 

Part of what is hard is that authorities who are supposed to take care of us, protect us, and be honest with us are failing to do that. The federal government is continuing to fail to take the appropriate active steps to reverse the course of the pandemic. Many state governments are failing to take appropriate steps. Perhaps even more disturbingly, the CDC has started issuing some guidelines under political pressure rather than as a result of medical knowledge. In this context, when a state government says that it is imperative that schools open in person, or says that it is safe for schools to open in person, we must listen with a skeptical ear. We have to gain our own expertise about the pandemic. We cannot blindly trust our government or school board leaders; we must assess their trustworthiness. 

Is your state’s governor taking the pandemic seriously? Have they been systematically putting sensible policies in place? (In New Jersey, the answer is: mostly, yes.) What about your local school board? Do they seem aware of the seriousness of the pandemic? Are they still relying on the debunked theory that there is no disease transmission risk for two people who are 6 feet apart indoors, or do they recognize the latest science, which holds that indoors the virus spreads far more easily? Have they updated their ventilation and air-filtration systems? Are they making public the basic facts about ventilation and air filtration in school buildings? Will school leaders be requiring masks? Have they publicly said under what circumstances school will close down in the face of viral spread? 

Tiger Ethics: Protesting and Mask-Wearing During a Pandemic

If your state is being irresponsible, your school district is being irresponsible, or the number of COVID-19 cases in your area is high, then you should not send your kids to school — for the sake of your own family, as well as for the sake of not playing a role in spreading the virus further. If you state is being responsible, your school district is being responsible, and the number of COVID-19 cases in your area is low, then you face a much harder decision. If no one in your household is high risk, you are willing to forgo seeing relatives and friends who are high risk, and you are comfortable with taking some real but small chance of your family catching the virus, then it is a reasonable choice to send your children to school. 

Many Princeton alums live in parts of the country where the COVID-19 numbers are high, and where the state government is not taking the pandemic sufficiently seriously. They should not send their kids to school. Some Princeton alums live in parts of the country where in-person school is simply not on offer; their decision is made for them. And some are in a situation like me: Here in Princeton, New Jersey, the COVID-19 numbers are pretty low, the governor is sensible, and the school board seems sensible, too. Among my friends and neighbors, there are many families for whom the school choice is actually easy. If someone in the family is high risk, it’s easy to choose to keep one’s kid home. If a kid is really struggling at home and would significantly benefit from in-person instruction, this can make it clear that sending the kid to school is the right choice. If a kid receives special services at school that transfer poorly to the online environment, this can settle things in favor of in-person school as well. In my view, those of us who should be torn about what to do are a small group. Our decision is difficult, but we are lucky — lucky to be where COVID-19 numbers are relatively low, lucky to be where government is sensible, lucky to lack risk factors, and lucky to have kids who can psychologically make it through online learning. If you’re in this group, then whatever decision you make, be grateful that you’re lucky enough to face a hard decision here.

I’ve decided not to send my kids to school, and I’m considering forming a pod with two other families and hiring a teacher to oversee the kids’ online schooling. (They would still be enrolled in public school.) My question concerns the fact that the teacher we are thinking of hiring is currently a public school teacher. She’d prefer to teach in a pod; is it OK to hire her away from the district?

Like so much in the pandemic, whether and how to form pods are new moral questions that we haven’t faced in quite this form before. When white families form pods with each other, they may perpetuate and exacerbate racial injustice. When families form pods and opt out of public education, this hurts the public schools (for which funding is often tied to numbers of enrolled students). But of course, you aren’t planning to opt out of public schooling, but rather to supplement it. And you are considering hiring a teacher away from the public school system, which may well need more teachers than it currently has (that’s true for my own school district, at least). In my view, the ethics of hiring a teacher away come down to one main factor: Is the school district treating the teacher fairly and reasonably? If not, then you’re helping the teacher move from a bad situation into a reasonable job (assuming that you will treat her well as her employer), and it’s certainly OK to do that. On the other hand, if the school district is being fair and reasonable, then you shouldn’t undermine the public school system by stealing a teacher away.

These questions came from PAW and Harman.