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.
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.