In most parts of America, children have been out of school since the middle of March, and in-person learning has been canceled for the rest of the academic year. With a wave of summer camp closures rippling across the country, there is now a raging debate over whether schools will even be in a position to open in the fall.
Their closure would be an unacceptable outcome. If the response to the coronavirus is to keep schools closed going into another academic year, then the response should be viewed as an unmitigated failure.
The status of schools in the fall has come into focus this week following remarks by Dr. Anthony Fauci in Senate testimony. He warned that it would be a “bridge too far” for those making decisions about reopening schools to expect that there will be an effective vaccine or treatments available by the fall.
This was widely misinterpreted as him advising against schools reopening. In reality, he was merely saying they won’t have a particular set of tools available, so if they were to open, there would have to be more focus on other tools, such as widespread testing.
In practice, this means that the potential risk that reopening schools poses to spreading the coronavirus must be balanced against the devastating societal impacts of indefinite school closures. Keeping schools closed means that children suffer physically, emotionally, socially and academically. It places an extraordinary burden on parents who have to figure out a way to balance homeschooling with work. And it exacerbates the achievement gap, as wealthy two-parent families with the ability to work remotely and technological resources to participate in distance learning are at an even more significant advantage over single parents in jobs that do not allow them to do remote work. There is also no feasible plan to reopen the economy that does not first reopen schools.
When school closures were under consideration in mid-March, the idea was controversial among public health experts. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Obama administration, expressed caution about the idea, saying, “We must consider the huge societal costs of closing schools against what may be little or no health benefit — particularly if kids continue to go out and are increasingly cared for by grandparents and others who are vulnerable.”
At the time, the CDC itself was quite equivocal. Its guidance read that shorter closures likely didn’t help much and that “there may be some impact of much longer closures (8 weeks, 20 weeks) further into community spread, but that modelling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., handwashing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures.”
Longer closures, the CDC said, could mean more congregation of children outside of school and a higher likelihood that grandparents would step in to provide day care. The document warned that a “significant impact on academic outcomes will likely occur.” It’s worth noting that not only did the CDC give a mixed assessment, but the upper end of the range for “long term” closures was 20 weeks — which would be blown past if the closures were extended into the fall.
Even though the question of closing schools in the first place was the subject of wide debate within the public health community, those pushing for the reopening of schools, such as Sen. Rand Paul, have been treated to sanctimonious lectures suggesting they are indifferent to the lives of children. These scolds neglect the other side of the ledger — which is the long-term effect on children from school closures.
The truth is that of the millions of cases of COVID-19 out there in the United States, the CDC has recorded just 12 deaths among those aged 14 or younger. Moreover, multiple studies have found that children play little to no role in transmitting the disease. A review in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal found that, at most, “the importance of children in transmitting the virus remains uncertain.” So the primary rationale for taking the draconian step of closing schools in the first place is very much in doubt, and yet now, there is a serious conversation about whether they will reopen in the fall.
It is true that there has been a concern in recent weeks about children developing a Kawasaki-like inflammatory syndrome. But that may or may not be linked to the coronavirus. And even if it is related, without knowing the number of children with asymptomatic cases of the coronavirus, it’s hard to say for sure how rare the occurrence really is. Either way, there should be significantly more data available on this mystery by the time schools would be set to open in the fall.
In the meantime, school administrators should prepare to reopen. The reality is that unless we’re willing to say that schools cannot reopen until there’s a vaccine, which could take years if the first wave of attempts fails, at some point, we’ll have to figure out a way to get back to school. The aim of such an effort would be to make school as safe as possible while recognizing that risk will likely never reach zero. The sooner we start that discussion, the better.
That doesn’t mean there needs to be a complete return to normal. There are various strategies to phase in the reopening of schools. One idea is to start with the lower grades, say K-5, and space them out among elementary, middle, and high school buildings. This would recognize that it’s harder to educate younger children remotely and also that they pose a greater child-care challenge to working parents. Another idea might involve dividing up grades into multiple groups and sending them to school on alternate days. There will likely have to be more mask-wearing, fewer electives (so children can stay in a single room), and no field trips or large events.
By the time August rolls around, schools will have had five months to figure out a way to reopen safely, and they still have three months to go. Though there are many potential ideas, policymakers should start with the assumption that schools have to reopen and work backwards from there. Keeping schools closed until there is a vaccine is not a viable option.