Don't close schools
A terrible time to repeat a tragic mistake
People who know things about viruses tell me that sometimes, flu strains circulate that cause more severe outcomes in kids than they do in young adults or the middle-aged. And we also know that every once in a while, an unusually severe flu goes around. So they say it’s logical to expect that at some point in human existence, we will see a severe flu that is especially severe in children, hospitalizing and even killing many.
And that seems like the kind of situation in which you might want to preemptively close public schools, especially given the well-known seasonal nature of flu.
Losing a semester of school would be painful, but seeing lots of kids die would be much more painful.
The other scenario in which school closures make sense to me is the circumstance that faced the United States in spring 2020 when he had a whole-of-society effort to minimize the spread of the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Many jurisdictions took those initial spring closures much too far, limiting access to parks, beaches, and other outdoor spaces or drawing fussy distinctions between “essential” and “non-essential” stores. But the general concept of closing sports venues, theaters, and other large gatherings while banning non-masked indoor activity (i.e., indoor bars and restaurants) is a perfectly sound extreme measure to take against a respiratory virus. And while I think closing schools is a more extreme measure than closing bars and restaurants, I can see the case for including it on a list of extreme measures.
So if some jurisdiction somewhere wants to go for full lockdown, I think that would be a mistake, but it’s a mistake I can sympathize with. But when I see one of the counties adjacent to D.C. shutting down schools or Jumaane Williams calling for the same in New York, I think it’s total insanity.
The tragedy of the 2020-21 school year
The loss of school during the spring of 2020 was unfortunate and annoying, but I think it was understandable and mostly necessary given the overall situation.
Then as of May/June of that year, I think Trump blundered politically by ignoring his own task force’s reopening criteria and provoking a more polarized debate. But by the summer, whether for good reasons or bad, it was clear that the United States was not in practice going to suppress Covid-19. Even the more restrictive states were not strictly quarantining travelers, so there were limits to how successful any restrictions could be.
And by fall, a lot of places — certainly including D.C., where I live — were reopening bars and restaurants.
I was pretty dubious about allowing indoor dining, but in retrospect, I think that was the correct call. No jurisdiction was prepared to be so Covid-hawkish that they were having the cops shut down in-house indoor gatherings. So while I personally was not doing any indoor gathering of any kind during this period, I don’t really think that making those who were gathering indoors do so in homes rather than restaurants would have accomplished anything. But either way, here in D.C. and in many other places, the restaurants were open but the schools were closed.
That seemed insane to me because it was. Restaurants and bars were open because cities and states wanted the tax revenue and didn’t want to bail the owners out, but then they kept the schools closed because of Covid-19. Not because the virus was especially dangerous to children, but to halt community spread. My wife, along with Slow Boring copy editor Claire, spent months in our backyard in the cold all day supervising eight boys doing Zoom kindergarten, and I’d sometimes go run a midday errand to pick something up for the operation and walk past restaurants full of people eating and chatting.
In a narrow political sense, I understand how that came to happen — bar owners lobbied to be open, teachers unions lobbied to be closed, and in both cases, the lobbies won. But it sucked. And I commend the mayors who worked hard once vaccines were approved to get teachers vaccinated and back to teaching. But it happened too slowly here in D.C., and it happened even slower in other places.
Closed schools induce learning loss
I think that if at any time pre-Covid someone had suggested that regular, in-person school attendance was not that important and kids would be okay just watching video lessons and doing online work, that would have been understood as a kind of right-wing techno-libertarian crank viewpoint. Thanks to the pandemic, though, we got to find out if the techno-libertarian cranks are right about school.
It turns out that they are not. In Virginia, for example, student test scores plummeted and the racial gap in scores exploded (there’s no data for 2019-20 because of the pandemic).
And we’ve seen this basically everywhere. McKinsey and NWEA found huge learning losses concentrated in poorer kids nationwide. Texas and Indiana reported big early test score declines. A study from the Netherlands indicated that during an eight-week period of virtual schooling, students learned basically nothing on average.
The sentiment has popped up in some quarters that opposition to school closure is just bougie parents wanting babysitting for their kids. But it’s worth being clear about this because it’s important from a public health perspective: nothing about closing schools prevents children from being in congregate settings during working hours. In D.C. we have preschool for three- and four-year-olds, but a lot of parents of three- and four-year-olds took their kids out of public preschool to enroll them at daycare centers that weren’t closed. Lots of older kids were in “pods.” You were completely allowed to hire a babysitter. I will acknowledge that surveys indicate low-SES parents were more supportive of school closures than high-SES ones. But in practical terms, the elimination of a critical public service was a bigger logistical burden on low-SES families and a bigger drain on their kids’ learning.
If you step back from the Covid-19 controversy, the learning loss findings are actually really interesting research.
For years, study after study has shown that the effect sizes of education interventions tend to be really small. And when they don’t look small, they tend to be very difficult to scale up. That led some people to infer that schooling is largely pointless. But we learned during the pandemic that if you try something out-of-sample like not having school at all, the effects are actually very large.
So this brings me back to what I said before: sometimes in an emergency, you have to do something extreme. But we should acknowledge that “virtual learning” is a very extreme public health measure — much more extreme in its consequences for society than closing restaurants. The fact that it’s easier as a matter of interest group lobbying is neither here nor there. In a world where we’re not pursuing a Covid Zero strategy, it makes no sense to do this as a mitigation measure unless the children themselves are at high risk. And they’re not.
Covid-19 is not a major health risk for children
Nobody likes to see young kids get sick. When my kid was a baby he got roseola, and it was a terrifying experience. It was terrifying even though both our pediatrician and basic internet research suggested that there is nothing particularly dangerous about the virus — it causes a high fever and the kid feels bad, but in almost all cases it resolves successfully without treatment.
And pre-Covid, I think we generally understood that “suck it up, the kid almost certainly won’t die” is not a thing you would say to the parents of a young child. People care about their kids and don’t want them to get sick. It’s great that children’s vaccines were authorized. Our kid is vaccinated, and I’d encourage everyone with children to do the same.
That said, the number of children who’ve died of Covid-19 in the United States so far (646) is a small number relative to the major threats to children’s lives: car wrecks, murder, suicide, drowning, and accidental poisoning. The death of a child is always a tragedy, and these statistics aren’t meant to negate the suffering of those affected by Covid in this way. But it’s important to think about the risk to children in the context of overall risk.
A generally well-functioning society is actually very important to children’s health. Having teenagers unenrolled in high school, in particular, seems pretty dangerous.
If shuttering schools for a week or two or a month or three would make the SARS-Cov-2 virus vanish, that might be worth talking about. After all, while the risk to kids’ health is not large, it’s also not zero. But the risk is going to continue probably indefinitely. It’s unfortunate that school kids in 2022 will be at higher risk of contracting a serious respiratory illness than kids were in 2019. But we can’t really prevent that from being the case. And we can be thankful that the risk level is objectively not that high.
Democrats need to be the party of public services
The White House, I think, has gotten this one right and is positioning Joe Biden as the champion of keeping schools open:
Vaccinations to Protect Our Kids and Keep Our Schools Open: The President will announce new actions to get more kids ages 5 and older vaccinated and to keep our schools open. When the President came into office, more than half the schools in our country were closed. Today, 99 percent of schools across the country are fully open and in person. The steps the President is announcing today will ensure that remains the case. As we face the Omicron variant, we now have an important new tool: vaccines for kids ages 5-11. The U.S. leads the world in vaccinating children in this age group. To date, we have already vaccinated over 4 million 5- to 11-year-olds and 15 million adolescents. Vaccinating our kids protects them, keeps schools open, and protects everyone around them. The Biden Administration has made it easy for parents to get their kids vaccinated with over 35,000 sites that parents know and trust, including pharmacies, pediatricians’ offices, children’s hospitals and school-based clinics. The President will announce new actions to get kids vaccinated and ensure that schools stay open.
The specific strategy here involves more vaccine clinics, having Medicaid pay doctors to talk to families about vaccination (this is very smart), and new CDC guidance that’s designed to make quarantine rules less burdensome with more use of testing.
Those are all smart ideas, and I hope they will help Democrats get on the right side of a topic they were often on the wrong side of last year. There’s an inherent political economy tension between Democrats’ role as the party of high-quality public services and the party of the interests of service providers. Service providers do care about services, which is why teachers are a natural constituency for Democrats. But their interests aren’t fully aligned with the interests of students, and during the pandemic, a lot of union locals really went overboard in terms of treating schools as a kind of make-work job where it wasn’t important to be providing in-person instruction. Every shred of evidence I’ve ever seen is that most teachers do not think or feel that way, but institutions can become excessively responsive to their noisiest members.
But regardless, going forward, Biden has this right — Democrats are the party that thinks education is important, that wants to invest in pre-K, that believes in higher salaries for teachers, and that by the same token believes that kids should be in school.
As I wrote the other day, omicron really does look pretty scary. But what scares me about it is that we have a lot of unvaccinated middle-aged people in this country, we have more unvaccinated elderly than we should, and while the actual numbers are kind of unclear, it appears we have a lot of non-boosted people in nursing homes. I’m genuinely very worried about a lot of my fellow citizens getting sick and dying. But the solution to this is to take the vaccines, not to keep kids out of school.