It’s time to make school closures due to Covid an absolute last resort

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I’ve been working on this post for the better part of a week, trying to decide if it was worth posting. Then yesterday a New York Times headline came across my phone and it nudged me to hit “Publish.”

“India’s Lost Generation: Lengthy pandemic shutdowns have led to young people leaving school altogether, dimming the prospects for the country’s economic future”

As some epidemiologists, who I’ll come back to later, warned us about in fall of 2020, lockdown policies have have had a devastating impact on young people and it’s time to take that policy decision, school closures due to Covid, off the table.

I should start by saying that I’m not on any of the popular teams. I’m not on team Blue or team Red. I wasn’t on team Lockdown or team Open Everything. I’m not on team This Isn’t Even As Bad As The Flu or team It’s Gonna Kill Everyone. I’m not on team The Vaccine Will Fix Everything or team The Vaccines Are Worse Than The Disease.

I’m just trying to figure out what is true, regardless of who said it or what I’m supposed to think. Given the current situation with Covid and what we’ve learned over the last two years, I think we should be done with much of the health theater in our schools, including mask mandates, disinfecting surfaces constantly, and especially school closures with remote learning.

Let’s start with the policy that probably creates and has created the most harm to our kids – closing schools and subsequently switching to remote learning. I suspect the vast majority of schools in the 20-21 school year closed at some point and switched to remote learning. Some schools never opened for in-person learning last year. Policymakers and school leaders had a wide range of considerations to balance when making the decision to got to remote learning, among them the health of the students, the students’ families, the teachers, and the community at large. At the time there was no vaccine and the consensus was that schools could be places where the virus would proliferate, driving community spread. (I say “consensus”, because there were health experts pointing out that this did not seem to be the case. Even recent research found schools being open either didn’t drive hospitalizations or, in counties where there was already substantial spread, it was inconclusive.) This combination of factors and fear of the virus drove schools to err on the side of preventing Covid transmission at all costs.

The lack of a vaccine or other treatment meant that the fear many felt was understandable. Nobody wanted to see a teacher get severely ill or die because a student brought it into their classroom. Nobody wanted to see a student pass it to another student and have the latter student’s parents get severely ill. Nobody wanted to see a kid get sick and die. The probability of these things happening was probably low, but again, I can understand concerns and the decisions that followed. I’m not saying that I would’ve chose differently had I been given the power to make those decisions.

However, the decision was not without real costs. Switching to remote learning or hybrid learning put huge amounts of pressure on the teachers to radically change their approach to instruction. Many teachers did this poorly. (I don’t mean to demean the teachers that did it poorly. It would be like yelling a kid for not being able to read well when you’ve only taught him half of the alphabet. It’s not their fault.) Many administrators left the profession. Many teachers left the profession. A profession that already had a high burnout rate had gasoline poured onto the fire. It wreaked havoc with the mental health of educators and put strain on their families. Ask any teacher and you’ll find near universal agreement that last year was hell.

But we did it. We did it because we were told that it was required for our safety and the safety of our communities, even if it might be hard on our students (and their parents, and us, and so on). What I saw teachers go through last year was nothing short of heroic.

And the costs obvious don’t stop with the impact on teachers.

Most importantly the switch to remote learning hurt all kids and it hurt the most disadvantaged kids the most. The kids who only eat meals at school. The kids without access to internet. The kids with broken families. The kids with many siblings who had to provide childcare for the younger siblings. The kids with parents who were essential workers and couldn’t work from their laptops (not that working from your laptop and helping your kids get through school was that easy either). The kids that got addicted to video games or pornography or Tik Tok. The kids that were abused and it was never reported because a teacher never saw any signs to report. The kids that didn’t have access to after school programs or or other services that helped keep them out of trouble. The kids that missed out on extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, homecoming, prom, graduation ceremonies, etc. I could go on, but you can see how at some level every kid was harmed by these policies.

Oh! And many didn’t learn that much.

Some people don’t like the term “lost learning”. They bristle at the suggestion that we just fill brains like buckets and what – we didn’t put as much in the buckets last year? Fine. Call skipping over a year of education and whatever is typically gained from that year whatever you want to call it. The irony is that many of the teachers that quibble over the term “lost learning” are the ones that will make arguments like “it’s not what or how much students learn, it’s all the other things that students get from school that are important.” Well, students lost out on that stuff too. Regardless of what we name it, we will be reckoning with the consequences as a society for years to come.

As I mentioned, it’s not as if the “well-off kids” got out of this unscathed. Depression and anxiety were on the rise before the pandemic. I remember having many conversations with counselors about it in the years leading up to March of 2020. The school closures accelerated anxiety and depression for many students and initiated it for many others who had not previously struggled with their mental health. (Which, remember, is physical health. Sometimes in the conversations around policy we forget that. As if Covid is a real health problem and depression isn’t. As if Covid is the only thing that kills people or causes suffering.) For example, Kooper Davis was a high school senior from New Mexico, with no history of depression, and committed suicide in late 2020 in large part do to the downward spiral caused by the disruption to school and football. In the summer of 2020 the mental health of young people became so bad that one in four people aged 18-24 had seriously considered suicide. In December of 2020 in Massachusetts, emergency departments saw four times more children in psychiatric crisis. The data demonstrate a massive uptick in young people struggling with mental health, but that’s only the slice of suffering that can be turned into a data point. For example, it doesn’t account for the parents’ suffering as they watch their child suffer.

The decision is not weighing “public health” versus “students’ lost learning.”

It’s “public health” versus “students’ health + lost learning.”

The most frustrating thing is that we knew this in the summer of 2020. However, anyone that thought that schools should stay open because of all the benefits schools provide were written off as people who weren’t taking the virus seriously and didn’t care if people died. And it wasn’t just your MAGA-hat-wearing-election-was-a-fraud-and-Obama-wasn’t-born-in-the-US uncle who thought schools should stay open. In October 2020 epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, which argued against locking down society and for a model called “focused protection”. In this model schools would generally not close. They were immediately labeled as fringe epidemiologists and accused of wanting the virus to “rip” through society. None of this was true. In fact, a recent email leak revealed that the head of the NIH said as much in an email to Dr. Fauci. He called the authors “fringe epidemiologists” and called for a “quick and devastating public take down of its premises.”

I digress. But my point is that throughout this pandemic one approach has been sanctioned and adopted as if there were no other alternatives worth considering because all “serious” people supported the sanctioned approach. This simply isn’t true. And hindsight shows us that we did real damage with these policies.

But we can change our approach going forward. Nearly anyone that wants to be vaccinated, including kids, can be vaccinated. We are much closer to herd immunity. Kids, thank god, continue to be unlikely to suffer severe illness. While we educators are not doctors, we still might consider adopting the principle of “First, do no harm.” If we do that then I think shutting down schools and remote learning should be a thing of the past.

The arguments for continuing with the policy of shut downs based on community transmission are exceedingly far-fetched. Given that the vaccines are very effective at preventing severe disease and death we are left with wild hypotheticals as justification for closing schools. For example, maybe a student will catch Covid at school, bring it home to their parents, they might be unable to get vaccinated because they’re immunosuppressed, and they’ll get a severe case of Covid. Or maybe a student will pass the virus to another student, he or she will visit a grandparent in a nursing home, the vaccinated grandparent might still be at high risk because of their age, they’ll get sick, and then spread it through the nursing home. Or maybe leaving schools open will be the thing that nudges hospital capacity over the edge.

I will grant that things like this might happen. Actually, if the numbers are large enough, they will happen. But we must remember the following:

By shutting down schools we are imparting certain harm on our students in exchange for prevention of an exceedingly unlikely possible harm on others.

There is one exception to this. If the number of staff absent reaches a critical level then schools may need to temporarily close. Likewise, if the number of students in attendance drops to a threshold that the day no longer “counts” then closing may be the only option. This would be similar to situations in the past in which flu has spread through a school or district, forcing a closure. These two situations are distinctly different from using a metric like community spread. The former situation could also be alleviated to an extent if state health departments adopted the five-day quarantine guideline instead of a ten-day quarantine, given the CDC’s updated guidance, or even allowing teachers back when they have a negative antigen test. And they don’t require a switch to remote learning. We must keep in mind that for many kids there’s no difference between remote learning and a day off – except that one has academic consequences.

I recognize that leaders have difficult, often impossible, decisions in which there is no good answer. I don’t mean to criticize them. I just hope that they have the humility to consider what I’ve laid out above and change course if they find it compelling. We need to have grace with each other, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique the decisions of decision makers and implore to make different ones. We can do this without being rude, ungrateful, or antagonistic. In fact, if we truly hope to change anyone’s mind, we must.