Thousands of schools across the country have delayed or cancelled in-person instruction as students prepared to return from the holiday break. For some districts, staff shortages caused by Omicron infections forced the decision. Others chose to go virtual with the hope of limiting Omicron’s spread in the broader community.
Unless we act now to reassess our policies and pandemic goals, many other districts will soon follow their lead. Policymakers should acknowledge the truth: indefinitely avoiding infection with Omicron or the next SARS-CoV-2 variant is not possible; all of us will catch the virus sooner or later. Our priority now must be to take care of ourselves when we meet the virus and collectively minimize the collateral damage to other essential services, including schools.
Omicron is rapidly spreading in unvaccinated populations and vaccinated ones, boosted and un-boosted. Data from Ontario and Denmark show that while vaccines remain protective against severe disease, hospitalization, and death, they only modestly slow symptomatic infections. As individuals, each of us can confront Omicron on the best terms possible—by getting vaccinated, maintaining healthy weight, and optimizing the management of any medical conditions. But we won’t be able to avoid Covid forever.
This realization has immediate implications for schools. It should change how public officials weigh the tradeoffs involved with various mitigation strategies. Teachers and students, vaccinated and unvaccinated, will become infected. It’s not obvious that either group benefits from slightly delaying illness by isolating teachers or students with mild or asymptomatic illness. If teachers feel sick, they should stay home, but shutting schools so that asymptomatic teachers who test positive isolate at home no longer makes much sense. In fact, if you aren’t feeling sick, it’s not clear what is gained by testing yourself at all. The good news is that the vast majority of teachers have already been vaccinated, and most will be protected from severe disease.
Parents may choose to get their children vaccinated, but either way the risks are quite low for the young. And keeping kids out of school is unlikely to offer much additional protection, anyway, since children will be exposed to the virus in other settings. We’ve already seen this over the break, as Omicron infections among children soared even as schools remained closed. Students should no longer be required to wear cloth masks, which are ineffective; nor should they be compelled to wear N95 or higher-filtration masks. N95s might work, if worn perfectly, but they would merely delay the time until inevitable exposure. Or N95s might not work among kids, in which case they impair speaking and interacting with no other benefit.
In the pandemic’s early months, school closures could be justified as a short-term strategy to “flatten the curve” to protect the health-care system from collapse. We once endorsed this view ourselves. But two years in, the logic no longer makes sense. With 75 percent of the U.S. population at least partially vaccinated—and many of the rest young people at low risk of hospitalization or adults with some protection acquired from natural infections—it is implausible that schools will tip the balance. Indeed, the key concern for hospitals today is staff shortages. School closures will almost surely make these shortages worse because millions of health-care workers have school-aged children of their own.
Even if one believes that keeping schools open will modestly accelerate the rate of infection, a claim for which there is little compelling evidence, it no longer makes sense to prioritize hospitals over schools. We doubt, for example, that society would agree to shut down police departments, fire houses, water systems, or other essential public services on the hope that doing so might modestly ease the strain at hospitals. We say this not to minimize the work of health professionals over the past two years but to recognize that society cannot function with hospitals alone. Indeed, the CDC reduced the isolation period in late December in recognition of the need to keep basic services running. Public education is surely one of these.
Overwhelming evidence shows that virtual schooling has led to devastating learning losses (concentrated among the most disadvantaged student populations), which will have profound impact on children’s lifetime earnings and future health. Learning effects aside, schools serve other essential functions, including regular meals for low-income children, protection from the exploding violence on urban streets, and a place to report parental abuse and neglect.
Even more practical reasons exist to prioritize schools. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s epidemiologists, vaccine scientists, and health-care workers. Continuing to disrupt education to protect hospitals today will make us less prepared for the pandemics of tomorrow, when we’ll need the same skilled workforce to keep society running.
For much of this pandemic, health considerations took precedence, with tremendous consequences for other aspects of daily life. Today, the calculus has changed. With on-demand availability of vaccines, newly approved therapeutics offering additional protection from hospitalization, and the new Omicron reality that durable protection from infection is not possible, it’s time to reassess our priorities. Doing everything possible to keep schools open, we believe, should be at the top of that list.
Photo by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images