As Donald Trump keeps calling for the nation’s 124,000 public and private schools to reopen, even as he’s failed to contain COVID-19, we are about to embark on a massive, poorly controlled national experiment with the subjects being most of the nation’s 55 million school-age children, their families and their teachers.
Unfortunately, this may not go well—which helps explain why New York City is one of the few major school districts planning to open school buildings to students in September, and only on a staggered basis—and we could be facing a significant upsurge in COVID-19 cases, including in states where the outbreak seems, at the moment, relatively under control.
Early on in the pandemic, we were hopeful that children would be less vulnerable than adults to acquiring COVID-19, but already this month, significant outbreaks were seen at a children’s summer camp in Georgia, as well as cases identified in recently opened schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee. And a just-released study from South Korea confirmed that children can be as susceptible to being infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus as adults.
Even more worrisome, last May, with few cases of COVID-19 and eager to get back to normal, Israel opened all its schools and within days saw massive outbreaks that started in the schools, but quickly spread to surrounding communities.
The decision here to close schools has likely reduced transmission among children, and to some important degree tamped down community spread. But the downsides of this unprecedented nationwide shut down were immediate and far-reaching, interrupting education for many children, particularly those with special needs, those in the lower grades, and those without access to reliable internet and devices. At the same time, the school closures also added acute stress to the economy, as millions of parents had to stop working to care for their children or somehow find affordable, safe day care arrangements—a huge burden on lower-income parents.
Think of it this way: For six months many families have lived in strange bubbles where children have been locked out of congregate settings, from classrooms and playdates to sporting events and concerts. Trips to the zoo or museum have been off-limits, summer camps cancelled and vacations that required plane, train or bus travel indefinitely postponed.
Many schools that are planning to open will enforce physical distancing between students, require face masks and take steps to protect high risk teachers and staff.
But that’s not all we’ll need. Busses taking kids to school must also accommodate distancing. That will mean additional busses and drivers to keep capacity low on each vehicle. Proper classroom ventilation needs to be assured, too. But many of the nation’s schools, particularly in low-income communities, have antiquated ventilation systems that require expensive upgrading in districts not likely to have the necessary resources.
That said, even if there is reasonable compliance with appropriate public health guidance and transportation and school ventilation challenges are solved, the coming flood of children, teachers and staff into the nation’s schools risks a massive resurgence in COVID-19 in places where it is now relatively quiescent and an exacerbation of cases, hospitalizations and deaths where it is currently raging.
During the bubble of closed schools and reduced exposure of children to SARS-CoV-2, we still needed to worry about children getting too close to older, at-risk relatives. Once schools are open, though, COVID-19 may spread like wildfire among kids in classrooms. And even though most infected children will be asymptomatic they will pose a major threat, not just for grandma, but parents and everyone else in the household.
When we have point-of-care rapid testing available and an effective vaccine, we can move quickly to get our children back on track educationally. Until then, most school systems should hit the pause button rather than run that cruel experiment.
In the meantime, let’s be creative and make sure that every child has a real opportunity to learn remotely. This will require a massive investment of federal dollars to make sure that access to the internet, necessary hardware and human support for students and teachers alike is sufficiently available to assure that no child is denied the opportunity to continue their education.
It would be difficult to identify a more important priority as we move at “warp speed” to control this devastating pandemic.