If you’ve been spending significant time on social media or watching cable news, you may believe the United States is engaged in a sustained debate about schools and Covid-19. Should they be open in the midst of the omicron variant or close to keep kids safe from getting sick? Are teachers and, in particular, teachers unions resisting demands for in-person learning? Are we at risk of going back to spring 2020, when kids were at home and parents were losing their minds?
American public schools are open, and it is nearly a universally held view that in-person learning should be the goal.
Yet, perhaps the strangest aspect of this raging debate is that there is no debate at all. American public schools are open, and it is nearly a universally held view that in-person learning should be the goal.
Indeed, according to Burbio, a data company that tracks school openings and closures, only 5,409 of the country's public schools were not offering in-person learning for pandemic-related reasons during the week that began Jan. 2. Education Week counted about 99,000 public schools in the country. That's about a 95 percent open rate.
The decision last week by a Chicago teachers union to not conduct in-person learning created a media firestorm, but the Windy City’s experience is the exception, not the rule. According to Burbio’s weekly school tracker newsletter, “Outside of Chicago and a handful of districts that announced a shift to virtual learning before Christmas … current disruptions tend to be triggered by cases among staff.”
This is the crucial difference between now and two years ago. Schools have not closed for public health reasons but because ever-rising cases have created staffing shortages that make opening impossible. Educators and policymakers appear to understand that the disruption caused by remote learning is so great that kids need to be in school.
In a piece for The New York Times last week, David Leonhardt outlined the extraordinary price that America’s children have paid since March 2020. This includes higher rates of suicide attempts, gun violence and what medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have called "a national state of emergency in children’s mental health." Math and reading levels are falling as kids are struggling to make up lost ground. Anecdotally, teachers are reporting more behavioral issues, including increased incidents of fighting and vandalism.
There is also overwhelming evidence that Covid health risks for children are vastly overstated. Serious illness is rare, and that includes long Covid. With vaccines now ubiquitous, the argument that kids should be kept out of school to protect unvaccinated people also falls flat.
There is overwhelming evidence that Covid health risks for children are vastly overstated.
Quite simply, the far greater danger to kids is the mental health issues related to being out of school than the public health risk of testing positive for Covid.
Leonhardt worried that “the omicron variant is now scrambling children’s lives again” and that communities across the country will continue to accept “more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults.”
But there is minimal evidence this is occurring.
Again, according to Burbio, “The near-universal approach for K-12 schools in the new year has been to open for in-person learning and only close in the event of Covid 19 cases being identified at levels that create resource constraints.”
In New York City, for example, Mayor Eric Adams has made keeping schools open a top priority, even refusing to shut down during a Friday snowstorm. Indeed, the current guidance from the Department of Education allows kids to remain in school even if a classmate tests positive for Covid — as long as they are fully vaccinated. This is a far cry from a year ago, when a handful of unconnected cases in a New York City public school, such as the ones my children attend, would lead to a 10-day closure.
The same is true in other major school districts. What is most notable about the current Covid wave is that, in the face of record-high case numbers, school are not closing in significant numbers.
Indeed, the current debate on schools is being driven by extremists on both sides: those who see any school closure as a return to spring 2020 and those who overstate the health risks of Covid for kids.
The education profession is in crisis, with a quarter of teachers considering quitting and 40 percent of principals considering the same.
While teachers and teachers unions are the familiar punching bags during these debates, we’d be better off listening to what the nation’s educators are telling us. Various studies over the past several months show that the education profession is in crisis, with a quarter of teachers considering quitting and 40 percent of principals considering the same. According to a Rand Corporation survey released in the summer, teachers “were more likely to report experiencing frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general population.” Even before Covid, there were significant teacher shortages and high rates of burnout. The pandemic has exacerbated these trends.
But perhaps, above all, what is needed is patience. For two years, we’ve experienced an unprecedented global crisis that has affected every one of our lives. Plenty of mistakes have been made along the way. In retrospect, not prioritizing in-person learning in 2020 and 2021 was an error for which we are still paying a price. But today, there is general consensus among educators, unions and policymakers that schools need to be open. It’s difficult to find anyone in positions of influence over U.S. education policy who don't share that view.
Rather than freaking out over every hiccup, we’d all be better off understanding that in a nation seemingly polarized on every imaginable cultural and political issue that when it comes to schools, we agree far more than we disagree.