On March 13, back when the country's largest K-12 system was still open, I pulled my diligent 6th grader and pre-K hellion out of New York City public schools, for fear that they might contract the coronavirus. This Monday, 115 days later, I just about wept with joy after shoving the 5-year-old through the door of her summer day camp.
Why the reversal in attitudes? In part because of the reversal in New York's fortunes—back then it was the global epicenter of the pandemic; now it has among the best trendlines in the country. And yes, we have 16 weeks' worth of experience in how psychologically punishing a long quarantine is on a family of four, when the nearest relative is 3,000 miles away.
But most pertinently, the world just knows much more than it did four months ago about the science of coronavirus transmission. Namely, that elementary school-age children rarely contract it, rarely succumb to it, and rarely transmit it. The studies are preliminary, to be sure, but as a thorough piece in Science magazine Tuesday concludes after looking at two dozen countries where schools are open, "younger children rarely spread the virus to one another or bring it home."
That's why it was a such a gut-punch today when relentlessly hapless New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public schools would not fully re-open this fall, instead accepting students 1-3 times per week and doing the rest remotely.
"We won't let you down," the mayor tweeted today, unconvincingly. "Through a mix of in-school and at-home learning we can make more space in every classroom and building. That means most kids coming to school 2 days a week….What we WON'T do is ignore the science and recklessly charge ahead like our president."
Ah, the president. Donald Trump, as is his habit, has charged into the school-opening debate with all the grace of a hippopotamus on a high-wire.
SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020
In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2020
I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2020
As Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) dutifully observed, "The federal government should not be dictating when or how our kids go to school."
But as Amash's old friend and neighbor Betsy DeVos, Trump's education secretary, also recently observed, "A couple of hours a week of online school is not OK, and a choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all."
So what happens when you sidestep the stupid politics, and try to assess in good faith the available science against the real-world concerns of parents, students, and educators? One of the most compelling such exercises came in late June when The New York Times interviewed Sean O'Leary, a University of Colorado pediatrics infectious disease specialist who helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics' new school-opening guidelines, whose bottom line is: "the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."
O'Leary, who has a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old, and who (along with his wife) contracted and suffered symptoms from COVID-19, told the Times that, "There are a couple of things we know now that we didn't know when we closed schools down in March. One is that masks really do seem to work. They are very effective. Two, physical distancing works as well. If they are taking as many precautions as they can, I think the risk is pretty low."
This virus is different from most of the respiratory viruses we deal with every year. School-age kids clearly play a role in driving influenza rates within communities. That doesn't seem to be the case with Covid-19. And it seems like in countries where they have reopened schools, it plays a much smaller role in driving spread of disease than we would expect….
What we have seen so far in the literature—and anecdotally, as well—is that kids really do seem to be both less likely to catch the infection and less likely to spread the infection. It seems to be even more true for younger kids, under 10 or under 12. And older kids seem to play less of a role than adults….
There have been a total of four [Covid cases] in [Colorado] child care centers, and we do have a lot of child care centers open. In almost every one of those cases, transmission was between two adults. The kids in the centers are not spreading Covid-19. I'm hearing the same thing from other states, as well.
And other countries, too—one of my wife's brothers works in a daycare center in France that has reopened with no spikes, and her other brother's oldest kid went back to school in Switzerland more than a month ago. It is also true, of course, that different countries have different levels of testing, contact tracing, quarantining, and of course cases and deaths.
None of these policy decisions are easy, which makes one ache even more for basic executive competence on the governmental level. And, as O'Leary rightly observes, "How this gets rolled out in August or September when schools reopen is really dependent on what is going on at that time with the virus."
But as most every parent of kids between 5 and 10 can attest, another school season of cabin fever, Zoom-wrangling, and behavioral backpedaling will drive not just parents but probably children to start day-drinking before noon. A key driver in the overall anxiety is uncertainty—New York didn't get around to even setting up rules for private summer day camps until a couple of weeks ago. It's hard to plan much of anything in a dual-earner family when you don't know what's legally possible with the education and supervision of your elementary schooler.
Older kids have pathologies of their own, and will suffer in their special ways the results of going to school half time or less. But at least they can somewhat manage themselves, or at least pretend to while recording dances on Tik-Tok.
For now, let's keep learning from summer camps and the global experience about what happens to the pandemic when kids are allowed to comingle a bit, and let's move heaven and earth to allow willing parents to send their children to class this fall. Mr. de Blasio (or is it Mr. Cuomo?): Open up those elementary schools.