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Opinion: Schools Must Fully Reopen This Fall, With Or Without A Children's Vaccine

Once all the vulnerable adults in their lives are vaccinated, it's too risk-averse to keep children out of school.

It is invigorating to think about schools this fall. Teachers, staff, and vulnerable family members — perhaps all adults — should be widely vaccinated. School systems will be able to finally focus on addressing the educational carnage inflicted on students, particularly students of color, by the pandemic. Parents can finally focus on work. But, astoundingly, some districts are considering continuing their remote or hybrid learning plans into the likely-vaccinated autumn. This is a frightening and indefensible concept that must be nipped in the bud.

While there may be a reasonable case for keeping students away at the moment (there’s also a strong one for carefully reopening), there is no humane argument to continue doing so this fall. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently stated that schools can be low-risk given certain precautions, but experts disagree about whether or not unvaccinated adults should be in school buildings. It’s a different story for children.

Children can and do become sick from COVID-19. However, those younger than 15 appear half as likely as adults to contract or spread the virus and, as a recent national study noted, “available data indicate children are far less likely to experience hospitalization or death.” As of Jan. 21, minors — defined as those under 17 to 19 years of age, depending on the state — accounted for less than 3% of total COVID hospitalizations. Nationwide, there have been fewer than 200 total child COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic; for context, when comparing age-specific mortality rates between 2020 and 2018, kids aged 5-14 were nearly three times more likely to die from heart disease than from COVID-19, and nearly 15 times more likely to die in a car accident. While even one death is a tragedy, and rare pediatric “long COVID” a concern, the risk-benefit equation is inarguably different for children.

Happily, teenagers — the age band of youth most at risk for serious COVID symptoms and for transmitting the virus — may well have a vaccine available by late summer. Younger children will have to wait much longer, almost certainly into the next calendar year. No clinical trials are currently underway for children ages 1 to 11 because pediatric vaccine trials occur in steps from older kids downward, but of all age groups the youngsters are the least susceptible. The risk will become even more minimal as adult vaccinations cause community spread rates to crater over the coming months; research is clear that the level of background spread dictates the likelihood COVID shows up in a school.

Yet some districts across the nation are already hedging on next school year. The superintendent of Edgewood Independent School District outside San Antonio was recently quoted as saying, “Online learning is not going to stop. Although by September we will have a considerable amount of people in the city — and I think that will include teachers — vaccinated, I anticipate the school year will open up much like it is now.” In a similar vein, Detroit Public Schools is discussing potentially offering a hybrid learning option in the 2021-22 school year, and the topic has also arisen in San Diego.

While the nation’s dedicated teachers have been doing their best under catastrophic conditions, certain reopening stipulations from teachers’ groups are simply unreasonable. For instance, in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the nation’s largest districts, the teacher’s association has taken the position that student vaccination is a prerequisite for full-time, in-person school — a standard that equates to writing off the 2021-2022 school year.

If last summer’s contentious reopening debates are any guide, the time is now for parents and advocates to get superintendents and school board members on the record about this issue. As former Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman recently tweeted, “If there is not massive public pressure — and state policies — compelling schools to open [this fall], some may not.” While policy strong-arming should be a lever of last resort, we may be approaching that cliff if localities refuse to step up: in Virginia, for instance, a bipartisan trio of state senators have threatened to hold up the state budget unless it withholds funds from districts that don’t fully reopen.

The import of these decisions can hardly be overstated: virtual learning has broadly been a disaster for students. Academically, course passing rates and early literacy benchmark scores have nosedived. While not entirely attributable to remote schooling, pediatric mental health emergency room visits increased 31% in 2020 compared to 2019.

The harms to child welfare are so serious that non-education groups from the American Academy of Pediatrics to UNICEF have been sounding the alarm about schools. And all of this says nothing of the damage to family stability — damage absorbed primarily by mothers (especially women of color) — or the damage to public education itself. Many employers that currently allow working from home will expect their vaccinated staff in the office this fall; ongoing remote school is the straw that may break many a family's back.

School systems should absolutely consider what can be applied from the pandemic schooling experience moving forward and not just return to the bad old days. This may involve planning for voluntary and permanent virtual or hybrid options, but getting back to baseline is the first step. The goal posts cannot be moved again to “all children vaccinated,” synonymous with 2022 at the earliest. Dr. Vinay Prasad, M.D., MPH, associate professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, told journalist David Zweig plainly, “Kids don't need a vaccine for schools to open, and waiting for this is a bad idea.”

For once, this need not be a partisan issue. Those acknowledging the urgent need to get students into school buildings as soon as safely possible include President Joe Biden, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and Dr. Anthony Fauci. Given that Republican leaders almost universally support school reopenings, full in-person instruction this fall should offer a rare moment of consensus. Good and early communication will be key to address any understandable fears or mistrust parents — especially parents of color — may harbor, and to demonstrate how low the risk is to children.

The United States has taken a more cautious approach to in-person schooling than most of the world, but this risk-aversion will turn reckless if districts keep children away even once all the vulnerable adults in their lives are vaccinated.

Precautions can and must be maintained, of course, to minimize the already-low rates of child-to-child transmission. Continuing masking and ventilation enhancement policies is wise. Strong testing-and-tracing resources will enable targeted quarantines and reduce absences. All of this can happen while returning to a sense of normalcy our children desperately need. Importantly, physical distancing guidelines and community spread-based triggers will need to be modified or discarded — although spread is likely to be quite small by then, vaccinated staff and children’s low risk level make such measures largely moot and unnecessarily disruptive. Schools should, however, be prepared to offer robust virtual options in limited circumstances, such as for infected-yet-asymptomatic students and children with serious underlying medical conditions.

The United States has taken a more cautious approach to in-person schooling than most of the world. The new viral variants certainly warrant close observation, and adjustment if needed. But this risk-aversion will turn reckless if districts keep children away even once all the vulnerable adults in their lives are vaccinated. For some students, this would result in an unconscionable school-year-and-a-half or more of their education spent without a complete week inside a classroom. The vaccine for adults is a medical marvel and the key to unlocking full in-person school this fall. There is no justifiable reason for districts not to open the doors.