United States President Donald Trump insists that schools reopen this fall. Many parents, educators, doctors, and economists want the same thing. But sending children back to classrooms could mean keeping places with a high risk of infection closed, such as bars and gyms.
More and more public health experts are urging federal, state and local authorities to reconsider how the economy is reopening and to prioritize primary and secondary schools, an effort that would probably require closing other establishments to help contain the infections and that children can return to class in the best possible conditions.
“We have to think about what our priorities are as a society, and some things might have to wait,” said Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University. “I think these are difficult decisions.”
Schools are crucial for communities, beyond basic education. They offer children friends, food and other support systems. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports children’s physical return to school.
The centers are also a crucial piece of getting the economy going, said David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research.
“It is what allows many adults, especially people with limited resources, to return to work,” Rothschild explained. “There is this huge ripple effect in the short term by sending people back to school, something you couldn’t say the same way for bars and restaurants.”
But if a community has a high rate of infection, public health experts point out that reopening classrooms would be risky, even if schools try to impose face masks and follow recommendations for social distancing.
Hundreds of children and employees got COVID-19 in outbreaks associated with graduation ceremonies and summer camps in places like Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, New York, and Florida. Organizers of at least one of the camps said they had followed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That is why it is so important, according to experts, to consider the community as a whole and not to think of schools as closed ecosystems, oblivious to what the virus does outside its walls.
Children are less likely than adults to become seriously ill from the new virus, and there isn’t much evidence that children are driving the infections, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the COVID-19 Evidence Study Initiative at Johns University. Hopkins. Still, there is a risk that they can spread the virus to other people, such as teachers or vulnerable people with whom they live.
“It’s a reason to think about how to improve safety and reduce risk in teaching environments,” said Nuzzo. “Those measures and the decision to reopen schools must advance before the riskiest environments”, such as bars, restaurants, gyms and other closed spaces “where adults are close together and it is difficult to fulfill social distancing.”
If contagion can be reduced in the broader community, he said, it will be safer to reopen schools.
“We should prioritize reopening those public spaces that have known benefits and low risks,” said Nuzzo. “And we believe that schools are one of them.”
Even before Trump’s pressure this week, Democrats and public health experts were already talking about the importance of children going back to school.
When Kansas Democratic Governor Laura Kelly signed a decree last week imposing the use of face masks, she told lawmakers it was because she wanted to reopen classes. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, made similar comments when she banned service inside bars in some regions after identifying several outbreaks.
And the Democratic governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, mentioned the schools when she said there would be fines and more aggressive surveillance of the obligation to wear masks in the state.
“The children and students of this state deserve a chance to go back to school,” Grisham said.
Republicans have also talked about it. Vice President Mike Pence, who visited Arizona last week, praised Republican Governor Doug Doucey for closing bars, gyms, and movie theaters. Pence linked those measures to economic growth and sending “the children back to school.”
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News last week that schools are essential to get people back to work.
“Do you want to open the bars now or do you want to open the schools and nurseries in a few weeks? I vote for the latter, “said Conway.
On Twitter and at a White House event, the president claimed this week without evidence that Democrats want to keep schools closed for political and not health reasons.
In a call with governors on Tuesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the country’s schools should “reopen completely and fully operate.” The Associated Press had access to a recording of the call.
But groups of teachers and school officials said the message does not help if it is not accompanied by careful reopening plans and federal support, which includes additional money to pay for more cleaning tasks, masks and social distancing measures. For now, schools are not getting what they need, said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the Association of Superintendents of Schools.
“What we are hearing is almost like a prologue to open schools at all costs,” Domenech said of DeVos’ remarks. “When children get sick and children die, I hope you can connect that with your recommendations.”
Health experts are confident that the conversation can continue to focus on the specifics of how to open schools. Some are parents who have seen their children struggle with distance education.
Nuzzo was able to buy a laptop for his seven-year-old son. Nuzzo’s mother, who has a doctorate in child development, helped him with his homework.
“We are incredibly lucky compared to other people,” said Nuzzo. “And I am really concerned about families who do not have the capacity to get involved with their children’s education at the level that distance education requires.”
“I am an epidemiologist, but I am also a mom,” Nuzzo said.