By John Bailey for RealClearPolicy
The surging omicron variant is creating pressure for schools to return to remote learning. But closing schools would be a tragic mistake, creating far more harm in exchange for little to no public health benefit. Even short-term closures can create long term harms for children played out over a generation of lost opportunities.
Before Covid, the standard pandemic playbook assumed a virus would be deadlier to children and more contagious. Under those assumptions, closing schools would protect students and slow transmission.
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But now we know that Covid behaves differently. Children have the lowest, not the highest, risk of disease severity and death.
David Leonhardt of The New York Times estimates that an unvaccinated child is at less risk of serious Covid illness than a vaccinated 70-year-old. Research studies and experience throughout the United States and Europe found that closing schools did little to slow the spread within a community, nor did opening schools create a surge of cases.
Policy responses lagged the science and also failed to weigh the trade-offs of the suffering closures created for students, particularly students of color and from low-income families. Students are further behind academically, translating to lost opportunities for college and jobs in the future.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared adolescent mental health and wellbeing to be a national emergency, driven in part by the social isolation resulting from remote learning. Chronic student absenteeism is up, college enrollment is down, and more than a million mothers have been forced to leave the workforce to provide childcare.
Will Omicron change any of these dynamics? The growing consensus is that it does not.
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The variant, while more transmissible, is also more mild — particularly for those who have been vaccinated with a booster. The American Academy of Pediatrics noted that “the available data indicate that Covid-19-associated hospitalization and death is uncommon in children.”
And there remains little evidence that closing schools would slow the omicron wave.
Additionally, we have the tools needed to safely reopen schools. Routine testing of asymptomatic students helps identify those with Covid who are unaware that they are contagious and at risk of transmitting it to others. In the United Kingdom, researchers from the University of Oxford found daily testing could reduce student absences by up to 39 percent.
Districts throughout the United States also employed this approach and found it provided an additional level of assurance to nervous parents and teachers that cases were indeed low.
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The greatest disruption facing students today is not school closures, but extended and repeated quarantines. The federal government still does not collect this data, but surveys suggest 1 out of 3 parents said their child was quarantined in the fall.
Test-to-stay programs can help limit the number of students affected by quarantines. Unlike so much of existing Covid guidance, test-to-stay programs are simple. If a student tests positive or has symptoms, they stay home.
If they test negative, they can go to school. While the CDC endorsed this approach in late December, it was used with great success throughout the country last year including in Utah, Los Angeles, and Lake County, Illinois.
Unfortunately, we still have confusing guidance from the CDC around isolation and quarantine durations. The CDC shortened the period to seven days for healthcare workers and five days for individuals followed by another five days of wearing a mask.
Last week, the CDC extended the five day protocol for teachers and students in isolation. But those who are in quarantine could only leave if they test negative after five days. This will help bring more teachers and students back into the classroom, but the testing requirement may be difficult for families and schools given the shortages of tests.
Masks provide an important layer of protection with the greatest benefits offered by higher quality masks. This could be good news in areas where masks have become controversial. One-way masking could be fine if they are high enough quality according to Dr. Joseph G. Allen, an Associate Professor at Harvard’s school of Public Health.
This creates an option for students who are high risk themselves or live with a high-risk individual at home to wear an additional layer of protection.
Last year, schools lacked one of the most powerful tools for staying open — vaccines. Now, vaccines are available for children 5 and older, but many parents still have questions. The best strategy for school leaders is also the simplest: ask parents to talk with their doctors.
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Instead of stigmatizing parents, this signals a respect for their concerns. It also directs parents to pediatricians who remain the most trusted source of information on the COVID-19 vaccine for children across lines of ideology, race, and ethnicity. Lastly, it frees school leaders to focus on the things they are best suited to do, such as setting up vaccine clinics to make it easier for families once they decide to get the vaccine.
Finally, there will be temporary closures resulting from too many teachers, bus drivers, or support staff testing positive and having to quarantine. And there may be other instances where local unions insist on remote learning despite evidence to the contrary.
In either case, Governors should establish an Education Recovery Benefit to help offset the costs closures have on parents. These can be paid out of the $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and provide flexible funding to cover a broad range of costs parents confront including childcare, tutoring, tuition, and income support for parents who miss work.
We have the tools we need to keep schools open during the current omicron surge. We just have to use them.
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.
John Bailey is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and also host of the podcast TechEnabled.
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