Letters to the Editor • Opinion
Is the pandemic under control? Yes. Over? No.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’ve figured out it’s safe to have schools open. Keep them that way.

Students learn remotely and in an elementary school classroom in San Francisco on Oct. 5. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Danielle Allen is a Post contributing columnist. Ashish Jha is a physician and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Attention is focused on what Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) is closing in the face of an explosion of covid-19 cases: indoor restaurant dining, offices, high schools and colleges. As the pandemic surges, and other governors are facing similar decisions, it is important to focus also on what Whitmer is keeping open and why: schools for kindergarten through eighth grade.

She is right to do so.

In contrast, New York City’s recent decision to close schools reflects continued use of decision-making metrics that pertain to an earlier period of understanding of the pandemic, rather than reflecting what we know now.

Raw data and case studies provide support for Whitmer’s decision. The latest data have failed to provide compelling evidence that in-person schooling leads to meaningful increases in infections in communities. While there have been some outbreaks in contexts without strong mitigation measures, there is no evidence suggesting spread within schools when effective mitigation measures are in place. Studies across geographies focused on examining the spread of the virus within schools have consistently found little compelling evidence that schools themselves are drivers of spread. While K-8 schools have shown the most success, high schools, too, have in fact done well with robust infection controls in place.

Distrust in the Trump administration has turned into distrust of science, adding to an already powerful anti-vaccine movement. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP-Getty/The Washington Post)

This winter, fight covid-19 with humidity

Summertime arguments to keep schools closed were made without much data yet about running schools during a pandemic. Those arguments relied on models and expected safety risks. But now, we have increasing data — and while not complete, the evidence is far stronger than what was available during the summer. We now have examples of schools at all grade levels that are being managed safely and effectively in a pandemic. New data and the experiences of individual school districts demonstrate that opening schools in a pandemic with infection-control measures in place does not lead to increased transmission of the virus. Educators can work safely in schools, and schools can be the safest place to be for children during a pandemic.

Infection-control measures in schools that are critical to success include mask requirements for students and staff; proper hygiene (hand-washing); ventilation improvements (including being able to open windows if needed); self-distancing in hallways, classrooms and shared spaces; and adherence to school rules for out-of-school social distancing. Where possible, consistent testing of asymptomatic individuals and tracing of contacts can increase the percentage of students that can be returned to in-person learning. In the case of cluster outbreaks, mandatory quarantines for infected individuals and their contacts must be enforced. If you’re sick, you stay home. New, stronger coordination and collaboration are needed among state and federal departments of education and health to provide resources and supports. None of this provides an absolute guarantee that there won’t be outbreaks in schools. But we now know how to minimize them.

We must recognize that the schools fill essential functions in our society — education, child care and provision of nutrition and health. School closures have had a profound impact. Parents are forced out of work. The deep inequities of American society are reinforced and expanded. Despite the best efforts of education districts, there is no doubt that remote instruction generates large learning gaps and links to higher rates of mental illness, while depriving children of formative social and peer relationships. For untold thousands of children, schools are their only source of healthy meals. And for too many children, they are a refuge from a precarious home life, a place where observant teachers can be a safety net. Some children will struggle to make up the growing social and educational deficit caused by prolonged school closings.

Schools, particularly grades K-8, should be exempt from closure requirements. They should be given authority to determine, based on the broader state of the pandemic at any given time, what percentage of their students are educated remotely or in person, but we must ensure that the schools remain able to serve, at all times, those students who need in-person instruction. Families should have a critical voice in making that determination.

To meet the needs for education during a pandemic, schools and educators must be equipped with resources and capacities for infection control so they can function safely even when community spread levels increase. And educators must be supported as essential workers.

Pandemic resilience means in-person learning is available to all students who need it throughout the whole course of a pandemic. Just as hospitals never close, schools should never close for some students, and for most they should be last to close and first to open. Whitmer has demonstrated courageous leadership throughout this pandemic, as she does now, guided by science and data, in deciding what to close and what to keep open.

Read more:

Emily Oster: Schools are not spreading covid-19. This new data explains why.

Leana S. Wen: Stop talking about a ‘national lockdown.’ It won’t happen, and it is a distraction.

Joseph G. Allen and Sara Bleich: Why three feet of social distancing should be enough in schools

Helaine Olen: It’s past time for schools to reopen

Kathleen Parker: Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. So schools must reopen.

Eugene Robinson: Trump doesn’t seem to understand that opening schools would make a bad situation worse

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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