The announcement was greeted with a huge and astonished handshake, but no one should be surprised. Parents who spoke out against school closures knew what to expect. In her thoughtful new book, The Stolen Year, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz puts it succinctly: “The danger that children would be harmed by prolonged school closures in 2020 was clear from the start.”
Exactly. Harm not only learning, but also social development and mental health. But as the rationale for closing “two weeks to slow the spread” evolved into a series of unachievable goals, those of us who raised questions about that strategy – including pointing out that the worst-off children found the most would suffer – our email inboxes being flooded with angry letters from readers accusing us of ignoring science.
But the “science” was unclear from the start. For example, in 2013 the British Medical Journal published a review of more than 2,500 studies on the impact of school closures on the spread of influenza. The authors conclude: “School closures appear to have the potential to reduce influenza transmission, but the heterogeneity of available data means that the optimal strategy (eg, ideal duration and timing of closure) remains unclear .”
A 2009 article in Health Affairs was frank about the limits of expert knowledge: “In the current political arena, there is disagreement as to whether closing schools would do more harm than good to the general population and whether the impact would outweigh any potential benefits to children and young people surrounding them.” adult communities.”
True, during the 1918 flu pandemic, early school closures helped slow the rate of spread. But these shutdowns typically lasted two to eight weeks.(1)
And yet there was a “consensus” in the public health community that schools should remain closed until…until…well, the target seemed variable.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I heard a public health “expert” announce on TV that no measure is too extreme if it saves a single life. Such a claim is not even a serious argument, let alone the teaching of an academic discipline. But the host treated the claim like scripture.
In her book, Kamenetz complains that the know-it-alls didn’t raise their voice loud enough. A more realistic way of making the point is that those who knew better were drowned out and even accused of spreading misinformation. But to admit only one side in a debate on an issue of public importance predictably leads to bad politics. And in today’s jargon, it is also a threat to democracy, which lives only on open dissent.
Perhaps the educational losses from distance learning would have been justified if the practice could be shown to have saved children’s lives. But it can’t. A study published in The Lancet in February confirmed that Covid-related deaths among school-age children around the world were remarkably low. How low? Under 5-year-olds, to give just one example, the mortality rate from infections averages about 0.0024% – or 2 in 100,000. And that’s the mortality rate among the tiny number of young children who get infected from the start.
Contrary to some reports early in the pandemic, young children can transmit the disease to adults, most likely due to our understandable tendency to cuddle our young children when they are sick. But at least for adults under 65 living with children, the increased risk of hospitalization is small and the likelihood of a Covid-related death does not increase.(2)
Here is the British Medical Journal in 2021: “The emerging consensus is that schools do not appear to be transmission enhancers and that cases in schools simply reflect prevalence within the local community.”
In other words, even if we adults are selfish enough to punish our children to protect ourselves, closing schools doesn’t seem to have protected us from anything.
I’m not saying no closures were necessary; I’m saying that we’ve never had a thoughtful public debate about how much and for how long. Kamenetz notes that the US was “the only wealthy country that in no way prioritized its schools for reopening and lost more study days overall than any other” — a fact we should be ashamed of. In a series of vignettes, she catalogs the harm young people suffer as a result of our wrong choices. When blaming someone is important, pick your favorite villain: Donald Trump, the CDC, the teachers unions, the news media, the reds or the blues. And when we’re done with this exercise, we can focus on what’s really important: how not to make the same mistakes again.
Here’s my suggestion on where to start: Next time, let’s not be driven by the fear of the unknown. Let’s downgrade the opinion of any expert who doesn’t cite data. Most importantly, we agree that robust and open conversations are needed when we are uncertain. Maybe then we can find a way through the next pandemic without punishing our children.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
• Online training is a bad idea that refuses to die: Andrea Gabor
• Distance learning can be much better: the editors
• The perverse social divide of distance learning: Justin Fox
• Stop the cruel experiments with child rearing: Andreas Kluth
(1) Late closures had little or no impact.
(2) For those over 65 living with young children, the data are more dubious.
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. As a law professor at Yale University, he is most recently the author of Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Take Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.
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