President Biden has asked governors to reopen schools at the end of his first 100 days in office. Why wait? No Covid-19 mitigation strategy has been as destructive to students, their parents, and the economy as school closures. The evidence—including new CDC guidance and a new CDC report—clearly shows that these closures are not only harmful but also do little to protect against illness in either children or teachers.
The first cases of community transmission of Covid-19 in the U.S. were confirmed in late February 2020. By late March, all kindergarten through grade 12 public schools were closed for in-person contact. Reopening has varied considerably from state to state and from district to district. About a quarter of school districts are still conducting online-only learning and about half operate on a hybrid model. Less than one in five has fully reopened for in-person learning.
Closing schools damages students’ academic progress, social development, and mental health, and limits access to essential services like nutrition and health screenings. Closures lead to significant declines in academic achievement. While online learning can mitigate the impact, most online programs are of poor quality and do not meet educational standards. Moreover, large numbers of low-income families lack Internet access and computers for online learning. A year of lost learning could reduce the future earnings of students by as much as 10 percent per year. One estimate put the lost earnings as high as $30,000 per decade for those who would graduate from high school but not college.
Parents are also negatively affected. Twenty percent of full-time workers have a child younger than nine at home, and 61 percent of these workers either have no spouse or a spouse working full-time. Many who cannot work from home and do not have access to child care must stop working to take care of their kids. Parents with children learning from home are more likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to be out of the labor force—neither employed nor looking for work—as parents whose children are attending school in person. And the economic damage is not limited to parents: school staff and suppliers have suffered layoffs and income loss from school closures.
When the pandemic began, it was assumed that—as has been the case with other respiratory diseases—children would be easily susceptible to infection, would get sick (sometimes severely), and would be important vectors of disease spread. It soon became apparent that children are at far less risk than adults, and that young children are less likely to be vectors. By the early summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that “the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection. In addition, children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.” The AAP maintained that the damage to children from school closures far outweighed the risks of school re-openings. On January 5, the AAP reaffirmed that in-person instruction does not significantly increase community transmission to other students or teachers, particularly if in-school mitigation measures are utilized.
A just-published review by CDC researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little evidence of community transmission in schools, outside of indoor sports practices and competitions. One of the studies cited was just released by other CDC researchers. It found that Covid-19 incidence among thousands of Wisconsin students and school staff who utilized masks and social distancing and remained in small cohorts throughout the day was lower than in the community. Only 3.7 percent of school Covid-19 cases, all in students, resulted from in-school transmission.
A recent study from Sweden, which kept its schools open throughout the pandemic, found an extremely low incidence of severe Covid-19 disease in nearly 2 million schoolchildren (ages 1-16) between March and December 2020; none died. Importantly, Swedish schoolteachers had no increase in age-adjusted risk of severe Covid-19 illness requiring ICU care than other occupations.
Teachers in Chicago and elsewhere have refused to teach in person, citing safety concerns. While susceptibility to severe Covid-19 illness is closely correlated with age—deaths and hospitalizations rise with age and are heavily concentrated in people over 65 and in people with multiple medical conditions that become more prevalent with age—teachers were at no increased risk in either the Wisconsin or Swedish studies. American teachers are mostly young and healthy—their median age is 41.8, and less than a fifth are over 55.
Students, teachers, and staff are undoubtedly safer in a school environment where masks and social distancing can be mandated and enforced than in unregulated home environments that are high-risk settings for Covid-19 transmission. Putting these low-tech measures in place is neither onerous nor expensive. If we want to avoid further damage to children and their parents, we should not wait for teachers’ unions to acquiesce or for Congress to approve more spending. Schools should reopen as soon as possible so that kids can get back to learning and their parents and school staff can get back to work.
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