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Opinion Both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong

Jonny Velasquez, 9, wears a mask as he raises his hand with a question while working in a fourth-grade classroom on Feb. 2 at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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Both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong. We shouldn’t be debating whether schools are safe to reopen. Instead, we should ask whether in-person schooling is essential. If it is — as many Americans, including President Biden, insist — then we should treat schools as we do hospitals. That means doing everything possible to them make safer, starting with vaccinating teachers.

The Biden administration has said that teachers should get priority for vaccinations, but leaves the decision up to the states. This is a mistake. If Biden’s 100-day goal is to get most K-8 schools open five days a week, he must make protecting teachers his top priority.

Let’s face it: There won’t be a consensus on whether schools can be safe from the coronavirus. Reports of low in-school transmission can be countered with arguments that schools lack testing and tracing to account for cases. Also, the same data can lead to different conclusions. After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its strategy for reopening schools, public health experts wrote competing op-eds, some arguing that the CDC guidelines are too strict and will unnecessarily keep students out of school, and others saying the opposite.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

As one of the public participants in the debate, I have come to see the conundrum and the error of both positions. Our dispute was not over the science, but the interpretation of it, because people have differing tolerance of risk. Some might say that if the risk of contracting the coronavirus in school is no greater than getting it from the community, that’s safe enough. Others would argue that because people can safely isolate at home, no amount of risk is acceptable. Any attempt to compromise and define what’s safe would result in a goalpost that changes any time there’s even one case of suspected in-school transmission.

To move forward, I believe we need a complete reframing. Stop asking whether schools are safe. Instead, acknowledge that in-person instruction is essential; then apply the principles we learned from other essential services to keep schools open.

There are children for whom in-person instruction has been essential throughout the pandemic, who depend on school for food; who have special needs that can be met only in school; and who lack technology to engage in distance learning. Many other children are facing significant consequences from not being in school, including increasing behavioral and cognitive deficits and mental health challenges. The need for parents to work is also a factor.

For millions of families, the theoretical risk of contracting the coronavirus is already far outweighed by the real benefit of returning to school. Parents are choosing in-person school not because they think it’s safe, but in spite of possible risks, because of how essential schooling is.

Similarly, hospitals had to keep operating during the pandemic not because they were safe, but because they were essential. So they made every effort to limit transmission there. They banned visitors, strictly enforced mask-wearing and implemented many infection control measures.

And because health-care workers bore the disproportionate burden of virus risk, they were prioritized to receive vaccines. No one said that hospital operations had to close down until every doctor and nurse got vaccinated, but they were at the front of the line because of their occupational risk and the societal recognition that their work was essential.

We should be viewing school staff members the same way. Many are already teaching in person, including in schools where mask-wearing, social distancing and other mitigation measures aren’t fully in place. The federal government can play a decisive role to give them the additional protection they need. It can force the hand of the more than 20 states that haven’t made teachers eligible for vaccinations as a specific group by sending vaccines directly to school districts. They can deploy the National Guard as vaccinators. There’s sufficient supply that, within a month, all teachers who want to be vaccinated can be.

In return, teachers need to accept, as other essential workers have, that returning to school will entail some risk. The covid-19 vaccines provide nearly 100 percent protection against severe disease. There is growing evidence that they also reduce transmission of disease. The privilege of jumping the line means returning to in-person work when the risk of infection is not — and might never be — zero.

As we plan for the next academic year, the framework of understanding schools as essential will be even more important. Case counts might not drop low enough to guarantee schools will be free from the coronavirus. But just because we don’t meet everyone’s criteria for safety doesn’t mean that schools should never reopen. We should set the expectation that it’s essential to have every school back to in-person instruction by the fall, and do our best to reduce risk — especially by providing school staff members and, soon, all adult Americans the extraordinary protection of the coronavirus vaccine.

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