POV: Closing Schools Again Won’t Stop Omicron; It’ll Just Hurt Kids
“There’s no justification for putting this option back on the table”
With the Omicron variant raging across the country, school systems are again shutting down in-person learning as communities grope for ways to protect school staff and ease the strain on overburdened hospitals. In recent weeks, schools in Chicago and parts of metropolitan Washington announced that they would move temporarily to remote learning, and more are likely to do the same as cases of COVID-19 continue to mount.
But this approach is rooted in misunderstandings about how viruses spread and a refusal to acknowledge what we have learned two years into the coronavirus pandemic. We have ample evidence that closing schools is not effective in containing the virus and is, in fact, harmful to children. We have better ways of keeping communities safe besides robbing students of valuable in-school learning.
Consider first what we know about the coronavirus, including the Omicron variant. Cases in the United States started skyrocketing over the holidays, while children were home for the winter break. This is due to the properties of the virus, specifically Omicron’s higher contagiousness compared with earlier variants and its ability to infect vaccinated people. It’s also because of human behavior: people traveled and gathered indoors for the holidays.
We also know from many studies from the United States and around the world that schools are not major drivers of community spread. A study published in the journal Nature Medicine in October found that in the 12 weeks after US schools reopened in 2020, there were no significant increases in hospitalizations or deaths in surrounding communities.
One reason is that closing schools for in-person learning doesn’t automatically mean a perfect lockdown; people continue to mix and socialize, and most transmission occurs at home and in social settings, among family and friends, when people let their guard down. Schools, compared with other places where people gather, are relatively controlled environments, where mitigation measures can be implemented and monitored.
Parents who cannot send their kids to school are forced to find other childcare options, which may lead to more mixing and less-consistent use of mitigation measures. And businesses such as indoor restaurants and large sports venues—where people who do not usually interact mingle together and where mitigation measures such as masking cannot be enforced—remain open. For all these reasons, kids (and teachers) will get COVID-19, whether schools are open or closed.
Unlike when schools first closed as the pandemic started, we now have powerful vaccines that dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease. These are widely available for school-age children as well as adults. Many people have access to additional doses that bolster their protection against the worst outcomes. Additionally, although the case numbers are reaching record highs, a glimmer of hope is that Omicron appears to cause milder disease, possibly because of mutations that render it less able to infect lung cells.
If in-person learning is not driving the exponential rise in cases or the increase in hospitalization rates, then switching to remote learning clearly won’t relieve the strain on the healthcare system. It might even worsen it.
Schools are not islands—they’re part of a larger, interconnected community. The entire complex network, including the healthcare system, relies on open schools to function. About 4.6 million healthcare workers, or 30 percent of the workforce, are parents of children under age 14, according to the Center for American Progress. Many of these workers are women, who are responsible for the majority of childcare in our society. Hospitals are already struggling with staff shortages, and many are on the verge of implementing crisis-level staffing to stay afloat. Closing schools will only exacerbate this strain; the closures may mean that at least some of the healthcare workers who are also parents of young children will stay home to take care of their kids, worsening the staffing crisis.
Schools—unlike some other businesses—are truly essential, both for children and for working parents. We also know that remote school is a failed experiment: students have suffered learning loss, behavioral challenges abound, and the surgeon general has declared a pediatric mental health crisis.
Nevertheless, schools are closing. And in many of the districts that have remained open, unscientific—and in some cases harmful—mitigation measures are being implemented, such as silent lunches, instructions to pull masks down only to take bites and then pull them back up to chew, and open doors and windows even in frigid temperatures.
Living in a constant state of fear and stress is harmful to kids. So, why are school leaders implementing these measures—and communities opting to close schools—at a time when children need these forms of human connection and normalcy more than ever to help alleviate the damage already done? Officials may be responding to the fear that staff and families are communicating to them, but fear-based decision-making is not appropriate, especially at this stage of the pandemic. We now know much more than we did about how to maintain safety in classrooms and about the harms we are inflicting when we close schools.
The pressure on school leaders is understandable. Rising case numbers are often publicized on district dashboards, and leaders are worried they will be accused of making unsafe choices. But the unfortunate reality is that the virus is here to stay, and there will always be another variant. It’s time to commit to putting the best interests of children first.
Another unfortunate reality is that individual schools may be forced to close because of unsafe adult-to-student ratios, when staff members with COVID-19 need to isolate. But these closures come from practical necessity, and they need to be short-lived, rather than pandemic-control policy.
Two years ago, those calling for school closures could argue that we didn’t know what the impacts might be. Now we do, and they are severe. School closures are not an effective measure for controlling the virus’ spread, they hurt children, and they limit our ability to keep hospitals open. There’s no justification for putting this option back on the table.
Elissa Schechter-Perkins, a School of Medicine associate professor of emergency medicine and vice chair of research in emergency medicine at Boston Medical Center, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Westyn Branch-Elliman is s Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine and an infectious diseases specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Shira Doron is a Tufts University School of Medicine associate professor of medicine and an infectious disease physician and the hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. This column originally appeared in the Washington Post on January 6.
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