Hey, Teacher! Don’t Leave Those Kids at Home
As newly detected COVID-19 infections in France spiraled toward 40,000 a day—almost three times the U.S. rate in per capita terms—President Emmanuel Macron announced that his country would undertake a second national lockdown, starting last Friday. But there was one big difference from France’s last lockdown: This time, the schools would remain open.
It’s a sharp contrast with large parts of the U.S., where there has been substantial resistance to reopening schools. Teachers unions in affluent Fairfax, Virginia, recently petitioned for the district’s schools to remain closed for the entire 2020–21 school year. Last week, hundreds of teachers held a sick-out in Idaho’s largest school district, protesting plans to bring kids back to classrooms.
Many political leaders have demonstrated the same extreme reluctance to resume in-person learning. Two weeks ago, following an uptick in Boston’s positive test rate, Mayor Marty Walsh announced that all city schools would halt in-person learning. Earlier in October, just days after in-person classes recommenced, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered 124 public schools to shut in New York City COVID-19 hotspots while allowing bars and restaurants to remain open.
This reluctance has by no means been unanimous. In July, the Florida Department of Education ordered public schools to reopen by the end of August. Scientists, Gov. Ron DeSantis explained, are “just not finding the kids to be major vectors” of disease spread. He also called the school closures “one of the biggest public health mistakes in modern American history.”
For proponents of reopening, the benefits of in-person learning are straightforward: for kids, greater learning and less social isolation; for parents, a greater ability to work. Data from D.C.’s public schools, for example, show an 11 percentage point decline in the fraction of kindergarten students meeting literacy targets. And one economist estimates that school closures drove 1.6 million mothers from the labor force by September. Both factors are particularly relevant for younger children, who are more likely to struggle with online learning and to require supervision if at home.
Meanwhile, opponents argue that reopening schools will spread the disease further: 7-year-olds, not known for being proficient in social distancing, will transmit the virus among themselves and then infect their teachers and families. As a result, they say, we could see large numbers of dead children, teachers, and grandmas. In location after location teachers unions insist they want to resume in-person learning, but insist that doing so just is not safe.
Fortunately, more than nine months into the pandemic, evidence is now available to litigate many of these disputes. For example, it has been clear for months that COVID-19 poses a low mortality risk for children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 80 American kids under age 15 are known to have died from COVID-19. (In the same time period, around 19,000 have died from other causes.)
In Florida, which provides extremely detailed data on COVID-19 infections, there have been 5 deaths from more than 48,000 known cases in this age group, a case fatality rate of approximately 0.01 percent. (The infection mortality rate, including undetected cases, is likely substantially lower.) Kids are at a much greater risk during a typical flu season, and obviously society does not think about shutting down schools then.
The far more relevant risk of reopening schools
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