This week, public school teachers in D.C. marched to protest opening schools next month, placing fake body bags outside the school district’s office. They brought signs saying “RIP Favorite Teacher,” “killed in the line of duty” and “how many will you let die?” They are not alone. According to an Education Week poll released last month, 65 percent of public school teachers and administrators want to keep schools closed this fall, while just 35 percent want to reopen.

Maybe they should have brought signs that read “I’m not essential” — because that is what they are telling us.

At the height of the pandemic, millions of grocery clerks, factory workers, food processors, truck drivers, railroad workers, mass transit workers, sanitation workers, utility workers, police officers and firefighters continued showing up for work — because it was essential that they do so. Are teachers less essential than these professions? Apparently, they think so.

They are wrong. Evidence suggests that greater harm is being done by keeping children out of schools than by opening up. According to a report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Children living in poverty, children of color, English language learners, children with diagnosed disabilities, and young children face especially severe losses.” It’s not just these deficits, which could reduce future income and job prospects for millions of vulnerable kids. Many depend on schools for food and health services. And working-class parents, who don’t have the luxury of telecommuting, can’t work if their kids are not in school.

The reason we shut down schools in the spring was because children are usually the most vulnerable group during a pandemic. But we now know that children are least vulnerable to covid-19. New York City, which was the epicenter of the pandemic, reports just 16 confirmed or suspected deaths among those 17 and younger — almost all of whom had an underlying illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “so far in this pandemic, deaths of children are less than in each of the last five flu seasons, with only 64.”

Schools may in fact be safer than once feared. The Wall Street Journal reports that kids are “less susceptible than adults to catching the virus at all, meaning they are less likely to spread it, too.” According to the New England Journal of Medicine report, schools in Finland, Belgium, Austria, Taiwan and Singapore have all reopened without increased case counts. A Nordic study found that keeping primary schools open during the pandemic had little or no effect on contagion rates, and that there was no increased risk for teachers. A French study found that keeping schools open did not give rise to secondary cases among students or teachers.

This is not to suggest that there is no risk in schools. Teachers who are older or have underlying medical conditions should not be required to teach. But according to my American Enterprise Institute colleagues John Bailey and Jessica Schurz, about 17 percent of all public school teachers and 22 percent of public school principals are in the vulnerable age range of 55 and older. That means that 83 percent of teachers and 78 percent of principals are not.

Schools should undertake strict measures to protect students and teachers, including regular testing, daily temperature checks, masking, smaller classes, staggered schedules and outdoor classes where possible. Parents need to help protect teachers by wearing masks and practicing proper hygiene at home. And we need to accept that there may be outbreaks in some schools. With more and more testing available, we now have the capacity to ring-fence outbreaks so that they stay localized.

But schools need to open. Online learning is no substitute for face-to-face instruction. Yet, amazingly, the New York Times reports that “many [teachers] unions … are also fighting to limit the amount of time that teachers are required to be on video over the course of a day.” If public school teachers don’t want to teach, there is a simple solution: Let parents take the money and enroll their kids in private or parochial schools that do. But it is unfair to trap poor children in public schools and then refuse to teach them.

No one is forcing anyone to teach. But that is not what the teachers unions want. They want taxpayers to continue paying teachers for not doing their jobs. Sorry, that’s not how it works.

No profession is without risk in a pandemic. But plenty of Americans in higher-risk professions are showing up for work, because they perform essential services. Most Americans consider what teachers do to be essential. Apparently, they give teachers more credit than many give themselves.

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