Too Much Covid Caution Will Be Bad for Schoolchildren
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- During the last school year, parts of the U.S. let bars and tattoo parlors stay open while keeping children out of classrooms. This perverse response to the Covid-19 pandemic will echo darkly through the lives of the children who were forced to sit at their kitchen tables in front of laptops rather than at their desks in front of teachers.
Americans should learn from this mistake and not repeat it for the school year that is about to begin. Unfortunately, an excess of caution might keep kids out of classrooms for another semester even with schools officially open for in-person learning. If classrooms are shut down every time a child tests positive for Covid-19, the result would be almost as bad as 100% remote learning.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidance for schools earlier this month. They recommend that unvaccinated children who are within three to six feet of another person who tests positive should quarantine at home for seven to 14 days.
Individual districts may be more or less conservative than the CDC recommends. But the guidance illustrates the central error that school districts have been making since last August. Children are being done a grave disservice if districts focus only on getting the number of Covid cases in schools as low as possible while ignoring the educational, social, and psychological problems that come from remote learning.
And not just children. Parents are going to find it incredibly difficult to work this fall if classrooms are intermittently shut down. I have school-aged kids, and this threat looms like the sword of Damocles. Every time I get an email from the school, my pulse quickens. Is today the day? Can I quickly clear my schedule for the next two weeks?
Here’s the simple truth: The U.S. needs to be okay with some children catching Covid. It’s a hard thing to say. But it would be in the long-term interest of children and parents.
There’s such a thing as too much caution. The right number of kids with Covid isn’t zero — and the reason for that is all the harm being done to kids and parents if zero remains the goal.
A recent report from McKinsey estimates the damage. On average, students were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading at the end of the last school year. In math, students in low-income schools had seven months of unfinished learning. McKinsey found that high-school students were more likely to drop out, and that low-income high-school seniors were less likely to go to college.
This will shave tens of thousands of dollars off the lifetime earnings of today’s children. It will circumscribe their professional ambitions and restrict their opportunities. The social and psychological damage could be long lasting, as well.
Kids who test positive should stay home until they are no longer contagious. Everyone else should be free to stay in classrooms for in-person learning, confident in the knowledge that childhood deaths from Covid are extremely uncommon. Shutting down classrooms and schools may be reasonable in cities with overwhelmed hospitals. But remote learning should be the rare exception, not the default.
The CDC guidance also states that children who were in close contact with an infected student do not need to quarantine if both the infected and exposed students “correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time.”
This is all the more reason for the handful of Republican-led states to drop their reckless bans on districts requiring masks in schools. If local communities want kids in masks during the school day, they should be free to impose that requirement. Giving them that freedom may keep schools open — which would avoid all the damage to kids from remote learning and allow parents to go to work.
It would also reduce the spread of Covid. Fortunately, children have been largely spared from serious illness. But there are still questions about the long-term impact of the disease, and some kids do get troublingly ill. They can also serve as carriers to adults who cannot get the vaccine — for example, those with suppressed immune systems.
Closed classrooms represent tunnel vision, a focus on only one aspect of children’s welfare. The U.S. should not repeat the mistakes of the last school year. The damage from those mistakes is clear. This year, let’s be cautious — but not too cautious.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).”
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