The CDC guidelines for opening schools recommend keeping desks 6 feet apart, closing shared spaces like playgrounds and dining halls, and mandating masks for staff and children. These guidelines are excessive and create a culture of fear.
Parents should fight against them.
With a few rare exceptions, the conversation about opening schools back up in the fall so far is dominated by short-term symbolism. Absent some realistic plan to prevent its spread, we will continue to spin our wheels, remain stuck in idealism, and still impose huge costs on the most vulnerable among us. Sooner or later realism must take hold.
The protests around the country have shocked people out of the optimism that considered virus transmission was something that could be reduced to zero. Science shows that the virus will spread quickly despite even the most noble attempts at changing how we socialize. The conversation about school’s reopening in the fall has to be based on a realistic assessment of both the costs and the benefits of social distancing measures in educational institutions.
Parents have to be able to go back to work in the fall and kids need to be able to learn and socialize. It is time to look beyond the symbolic measures we are taking to protect ourselves from the virus, and to start thinking about the costs and benefits of schools reopening more realistically. Come fall, schools should be open without any extreme social distancing measures in place.
Let’s start with the good news: children bear an incredibly small health risk with respect to the virus. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics suggests “children continue to face a far greater risk of critical illness from influenza than from COVID-19.” Using a review of medical records of patients admitted to 46 North American Pediatric Intensive Care Units, the authors of the study report that “as of April 28th, 2020, the CDC report 8 deaths in children 14 years or younger related to COVID-19 infection, whereas there have so far been 169 influenza-related deaths in children 14 years or younger during the 2019-2020 season, with 81 of these occurring in 2020.”
In addition, children are unlikely to spread the virus. The WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, recently told the BBC that children appear to be “less capable” of spreading the virus than adults. In addition, the WHO has not observed any significant outbreaks that can be linked to regular school attendance.
We are economists, not physicians, so we don’t pretend to know conclusively the many effects this virus has on disease or the exact degree to which children can spread it, but the evidence we are finding seems to suggest there will be little if any benefit of mask requirements, social distancing, or de-densified schools.
The costs of such measures, on the other hand, seem like it will be large and significant: most schools are considering part-time schedules for children in order to comply with the recommended 6-foot distance between desks. If children return to school only part-time families with two working parents will have to either hire a nanny, have one parent quit their job, or find other arrangements. Low income families will clearly be most dramatically affected by the suggested part-time schedule. Paying for a nanny to watch the kids and facilitate online learning on remote learning days is simply not affordable for most households.
Schools serve to bring those that have the hardest homelives and most adversity into a world where they can thrive. We think the plans for the fall will fall hardest on these students. In fact, the unequal effect of remote learning on children from different socioeconomic backgrounds already has a name: COVID slump.
Children from low income backgrounds are unequally prepared for remote learning for many reasons. They do not have access to computers with reliable internet access, financial and psychological stress in their home create a challenging learning environment, and their parents, who cannot simply stay home and help out, are less likely to be able to support remote learning.
Mask mandates for anyone over the age of 2, seem misguided, especially when applied to younger grades. A quick review of the Mayo Clinic’s suggestions for how to properly wear a face mask makes it clear why younger grades cannot effectively wear cloth masks, which means the masks will not produce the desired benefits: “[…] Don’t touch your mask while wearing it. If you accidentally touch your mask, wash or sanitize your hands. Remove the mask by untying it or lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or your face. Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask.”
Even the most idealistic among us cannot argue that grade-schoolers would be able to follow these guidelines. If young children cannot do it right, the costs of a mask mandate for schools by far outweigh the benefits, which are already miniscule at best.
In addition, masks come with the risk of turning friendly faces into anonymous others. In a time where we are spending so much energy on a national conversation about equality, what are we going to get from telling children that all other kids are a threat that has to be guarded against?
There is far too little discussion of the way masks are being treated. At best they are symbolic but at worst they are alienating. A local kindergarten teacher confessed that she can’t imagine using her stern voice, teaching children classroom discipline, without her positive facial expressions, to let them know they are loved. She fears what it means to continue on with instruction without the full complement of her toolset.
The most promising reforms for schools include thinking beyond symbolism. Mask mandates and a 6-foot distance may be reasonable recommendations for vulnerable populations, but they are unreasonable standards for kids who are unlikely to spread or die from the virus.
For kids, there is merit to washing hands, UV light disinfectants, and other ways of controlling virus spread. What doesn’t make sense is how a classroom can become an operating theater and still remain a classroom. What works in a controlled environment will be either less effective or counterproductive in an uncontrolled environment.
We are calling for some realism in policy: masks can be used well, by older students or during specific periods of time where virus transmission is the highest. What we aren’t seeing is the sort of finer-tuned calibration of these safety measures to the places where they would be most effective. The economist worries when symbolism allows the trade-off to disappear into the background.
UV light, including the use of more outdoor instruction, can help to disinfect. Rather than closing down playground equipment, let the kids play outside more frequently. The use of more outdoor time can provide a check against the alienation and atomism that is likely to result from covering one’s face. If unmasked outdoor play is allowed because the conditions for virus spread are low, additional recess time can provide one of the most essential parts of the school experience: much needed socialization without additional health risks.
Schools should return in the fall without most of the CDC guidelines for schools in place. If schools cannot find some way to use reasonable disinfecting measures, apply targeted use of protective equipment when risks are the highest, and find ways to provide the socialization that is so desperately needed for childhood development, then they might as well remain closed. To accept that fate, however, would have a systematically dire result on the least-well-off in society for which the school system is the biggest chance for social mobility.
Doctors, public health officials, and school administrators all have asymmetric loss functions when it comes to new coronavirus infections. What this means is that they are extremely averse to reports of any new cases of the virus and they are designing guidelines for a return to school that seek to eliminate new transmission of the virus to zero.
Such a response is surely justified for elderly care facilities and other high-risk populations, but it is reckless when it comes to designing a constructive learning environment for our children. The best evidence we have regarding pediatric risks of the virus at this point says any degree of social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus among children may be excessive.