It has been obvious for months that among the various strategies for reducing the transmission of COVID-19, frantically cleaning surfaces is not particularly useful. But American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wants schools in Washington, D.C., to reopen only on the condition that a positive COVID-19 case triggers a 24-hour shutdown to allow for sanitization.
Public health experts have understood for quite some time that COVID-19 is an airborne pathogen that spreads from breathing, talking, and singing, not from casual surface-to-surface contact. Unfortunately, many people still wipe down everything they touch—even their groceries—because they have not updated their information since the earliest days of this pandemic. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson has described this "bonanza of pointless power-scrubbing" as "hygiene theater," and rightly points out that it wastes time and money on efforts that don't contribute meaningfully to mitigation.
It's thus disappointing to learn that Weingarten—who was recently glorified in a New York Times puff piece that hailed her as the savior of the school reopening effort despite the fact that she has thus far worked passionately against it—is hung up on surface-scrubbing. Shutting down an entire school might be necessary if there's evidence of significant spread between students and teachers, but cleaning efforts that go beyond normal janitorial practices would likely be useless.
These are the kinds of disruptions that will mean that schools aren't really consistently open in practice, even if in-person learning has technically resumed. Unfortunately, the Biden administration seems less committed to its 100-day school reopening pledge than ever: At a press briefing on Tuesday, Jen Psaki said the White House would consider its goal met if half of all schools were meeting at least one day a week by April 30.
White House: Our goal is to have 50 percent of schools open by April 30, 2021 — "at least one day per week" pic.twitter.com/7VNpG9i0Sx
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) February 9, 2021
Schools that expect students to show up for school four times a month tops—and fewer times if there's mandatory extra cleaning—have not reopened in any meaningful sense.
In a recent interview with Axios, Weingarten blamed former President Donald Trump for spreading misinformation about COVID and leaving schools unprepared to reopen.
"Given all of the misinformation that the last administration did, you have a lot of fear, and we have to meet fear with facts," she said.
If Weingarten wants to counter COVID-19 disinformation, she should refrain from spreading it herself. Many schools can and have reopened safely all over the country. D.C. schools should join them—and they don't need any additional mops.