For school children in the United States, 2022 is starting to feel like old times. That is, times when the pandemic closed schools and remote learning became the norm.
There is one wrinkle of difference today: the public, academic officials, and healthcare experts are largely in agreement that schools should be kept open in the face of Covid-19 challenges. Most subscribe to the notion that in-person learning is vastly superior to any other option.
“There are some things that are so important we need to find a way to make them happen even though this Covid-19 pandemic is not over yet,” Andrew Pekosz, Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said. “Getting our children back in school is one of those things.”
The problem, however, is that the Omicron wave of Covid-19 is so omnipresent that a dearth of school manpower has recently been crippling even superhuman efforts to keep the classrooms open.
A current story in Education Week was headlined: “Staff Shortages Bringing Schools to the Breaking Point.” That’s not a panic-induced sentiment — the writer of the piece, Stephen Sawchuck, efficiently documents how difficult circumstances have become.
Sawchuck quotes Summit County Colorado school board president Kate Hudnut: “Staffing is going to make or break us. You can only shuffle your classes so much until it’s just not safe. The kids have to be supervised. We’re not looking to put them all in the cafeteria because this is not daycare. And we can cancel a P.E. class, but keep in mind that the kids who were in P.E. need to go somewhere too….our threshold is that we can have 15 or 20 percent out and still make a go of it. We have administrators in classrooms subbing.”
In a recent, widely circulated op-ed written for The New York Times, Dr. Joseph G. Allen summarized the case for keeping schools open despite the escalating pandemic conditions.
Dr. Allen, an associate professor at Harvard and a chair of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission Task Force on Safe Work, Safe School and Safe Travel, wrote that “school closures would be a tragic mistake and should be off the table as an option.”
His point of view was based on an assessment of infection risk versus the traumatic impact of school closure. “The harms to kids from being out of school…are severe,” Dr. Allen noted. “They are accumulating. And they could last for decades. Online learning isn’t the same as in-person learning. A report by McKinsey examining Covid-19 effects on the 2020-21 school year found that the pandemic left students five months behind on math and four months behind in reading.”
As Dr. Allen underscored, the McKinsey report was based on students who showed up for school. More than one million students who were expected in school did not attend — the largest numbers were among the youngest learners and those from families living below the federal poverty line.
School closings impacted more than just learning, Dr. Allen emphasized. Some 14 million students were prevented from consuming food they actually needed. And emergency pediatric hospital visits for mental health reasons increased significantly.
The lives of parents and caregivers were also radically jolted. “Kids doing school at home also meant many parents couldn’t be at work,” Dr. Allen stated. “This additional homework disproportionately fell on women, and differences in labor force participation between women and men, already stark, grew 5 percentage points from 2019 to 2020 in states offering primarily remote instruction.”
In order to keep the school doors open, Dr. Allen proposed utilizing familiar techniques coupled with a few innovative twists. Not surprisingly, vaccinations for all concerned — students and school staff — was the foundation of his approach. Improved ventilation, using government stimulus funds, was another must.
Dr. Allen favored Covid-19 testing, but in a less intrusive manner than some have advocated.
“We need to stop quarantining entire classrooms when there is a positive test and instead establish so-called test-to-stay policies as a default,” he wrote. “If you test positive — or if you have any symptoms — you stay home. If you test negative, you’re in school…two negative rapid antigen tests on consecutive days and no symptoms should be enough to return safely.”
In terms of masking, he pushed for voluntary, not mandatory, participation. “Masking was a necessary inconvenience early on and, in short stints, was fine,” he pointed out. “But to think that two years of masking has no impact on socialization, learning, and anxiety is shortsighted. Kids are resilient but not endlessly resilient.”
Dr. Allen made it clear that closed schools, learning behind plexiglass and masks with no playground contact is “outrageous, dangerous, and fear based.” With regard to the pandemic, his mantra is “schools should never close.”