This article appeared in Wired Magazine June 24, 2020.
“David Zweig writes about technology and culture for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. He is also the author of the book Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.”
On May 18, education ministers from the EU gathered on a conference call to discuss the reopening of schools. Children had been back to class for several weeks in 22 European countries, and there were no signs yet of a significant increase in Covid-19 infections. It was early still, but this was good news. More than a month later, the overall mortality rate in Europe has continued to decline. Now, as we look to the fall, the US belatedly appears keen to follow Europe’s lead.
The question of how US schools should be reopened—on what sort of schedule, with what degree of caution—has yet to be determined. But recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released May 16, conjures up a grim tableau of safety measures: children wearing masks throughout the day; students kept apart in class, their desks surrounded by 6-foot moats of empty space; shuttered cafeterias and decommissioned jungle gyms; canceled field trips; and attendance scattered into every other day or every other week. Reports suggest that certain US schools may even tag their kids with homing beacons, to help keep track of anyone who breaks the rules and gets too close to someone else. It seems that every measure, no matter how extreme, will be taken in an effort to keep the students and the staffers safe.
This could be a grave mistake. As children return to school this fall, we must take a careful, balanced view of all the safety measures that have been proposed and consider which are really prudent—and which might instead be punitive.
It’s certainly true that reopening our schools, however carefully, could increase transmission of the virus. Some countries that have done so—Israel and France, for instance—did see clusters of infections among students and staff. But these outbreaks were both small and expected, officials in both countries told the press; and the evidence suggests that the risks, overall, are very low.
Let’s review some facts: Children are, by and large, spared the effects of the virus. According to the latest data from the CDC, infants, little kids, and teenagers together have accounted for roughly 5 percent of all confirmed cases, and 0.06 percent of all reported deaths. The Covid-linked child inflammatory syndrome that received fervent media attention last month, while scary, has even more infinitesimal numbers. “Many serious childhood diseases are worse, both in possible outcomes and prevalence,” said Charles Schleien, chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health in New York. Russell Viner, president of the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, noted that the syndrome was not “relevant” to any discussion related to schools.
There is also a wealth of evidence that children do not transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. While experts note that the precise transmission dynamics between children, or between children and adults, are “not well understood”—and indeed, some argue that the best evidence on this question is that “we do not have enough evidence”—many tend to think that the risk of contagion is diminished. Jonas F. Ludvigsson, a pediatrician and a professor of clinical epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reviewed the relevant research literature as of May 11 and concluded that, while it’s “highly likely” children can transmit the virus causing Covid-19, they “seldom cause outbreaks.” The World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, suggested last month that “it does seem from what we know now that children are less capable of spreading” the disease, and Kristine Macartney, director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, noted a lack of evidence that school-aged children are superspreaders in her country. A study in Ireland found “no evidence of secondary transmission of Covid-19 from children attending school.” And Kári Stefánsson, a leading researcher in Iceland, told The New Yorker that out of some 56,000 residents who have been tested, “there are only two examples where a child infected a parent. But there are lots of examples where parents infected children.” Similar conclusions were drawn in a study of families in the Netherlands.
None of this implies that Covid-19 couldn’t still spread efficiently among a school’s adults—the teachers and staff. Under any reopening plan, those who are most vulnerable to the disease should be allowed to opt out of working onsite until there is a vaccine or effective treatment. And adults who are present, when around each other, should wear masks and maintain proper social distancing. Distancing among adults may be easier to implement in schools, where teachers tend to spend their days divvied up in different rooms, than it would be in some work environments that have already reopened, such as offices, factories, and stores.
A month ago, as schools were reopening in Europe, I made the case in WIRED that the US should consider doing the same. Asking when we should reopen, though, was somewhat easier than asking how. Lots of other countries are already in agreement on the first question, but it turns out there’s no consensus whatsoever on the second. Schools’ specific safety measures vary not only from one nation to another, but also, commonly, within each nation. In Taiwan and South Korea, among other countries, plastic barriers have been placed on students’ desks, creating Lilliputian cubicles. In France, some districts have children wearing both masks and plastic face shields; while others just use masks. In Germany, masks are suggested for common areas only. In Denmark and Sweden, masks for students are not required at all. Some countries are encouraging classes to be held outdoors. (Outdoor classwork is not mentioned in the CDC guidelines, though preliminary plans for some states and counties do list this as an option.)
Which of these measures are effective and appropriate? No one knows for sure. Still, it’s possible to flag the ones that seem least necessary. For instance, the French schools that employ the belt-and-suspenders approach of having students wear both face shields and masks, are doing so in direct contrast to a letter signed by the heads of 20 of the country’s pediatric associations, which states that wearing even just a mask—never mind the face shield—“is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor reasonable” in schools for children. Meanwhile, lower schools have been open in Sweden, without masks, for the entirety of the pandemic, and there has been little evidence of major outbreaks coming out of them.
Ludvigsson told me that the widespread use of masks in schools “cannot be motivated by a need to protect children, because there is really no such need.” He’s similarly unimpressed by efforts to implement plastic barriers, playground closures, or any other measure beyond common-sense distancing and hygiene. Such precautions to prevent the spread of the infection from children to adults make no sense, he said, “since children are very unlikely to drive the pandemic.” Another Karolinska Institute epidemiologist, Carina King, said there is currently “weak evidence on children transmitting to each other or adults within school settings,” and suggested the most appropriate safety measures for schools might include testing and contact tracing, improved ventilation, and keeping students with a single group of peers throughout each day.
A report released last week by a panel of experts affiliated with the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Education, recommends against masks in class, noting that it is “not practical for a child to wear a mask properly for the duration of the school day.” The report also advises that “strict physical distancing is not practical and could cause significant psychological harm,” since playing and socializing are “central to child development.” Instead, the report recommends the adoption of smaller class sizes, so long as this does not disrupt a school’s daily schedule.
Strangely, American policy officials have not said much about the potential infeasibility and associated costs of the most extreme measures on the table. It’s not a big deal for an adult to wear a mask in a store for 15 minutes. But it’s entirely different to ask a child to wear a cloth face covering, as the CDC recommends for US schools, over many hours every day. The guidelines helpfully suggest that children “should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering.” Have these people ever been around a bunch of 7-year-olds?
One of the more ostensibly benign, but actually most consequential, measures is the spacing of desks 6 feet apart. As a practical matter, few US schools have the room to accommodate all their students being so spread out. This means many institutions will be all but required to operate at reduced capacity, with students spending up to half their time at home.
The alternating-days approach is euphemistically referred to as “blended learning.” Considering the dismal failure that “distance learning” has proven to be in much of the country this spring, it implies that students will be educated for only half the year. Kids affected by the spring’s school closures are already showing knowledge deficits—what’s being termed “the Covid-19 slide”—and the learning gaps are disproportionately wider for lower-income students. Worse, perhaps, than being off for a block of time, is the intermittence that blended learning will oblige. Students need continuity in attendance to prosper, socio-emotionally and educationally. (This problem will only be exacerbated by inevitable closures as new cases are found. None of the experts I spoke with could give clear benchmarks for what prevalence of infection should trigger a closure.)
There also has been little acknowledgement or plan for how working parents are supposed to earn a living when their children are home for half of every school day, or every other school day, or every other week. “No credible scientist, learning expert, teacher, or parent believes that children aged 5 to 10 years can meaningfully engage in online learning without considerable parental involvement,” stated an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics. Nevertheless, the prospect of having children sit alone and stare at a computer screen instead of engaging with their teachers and peers is not only a certainty for many students in the US, it’s one that some officials—such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo—have characterized as educational progress. Last month, Cuomo wondered aloud at a press briefing why, with the power of technology, the “old model” of physical classrooms still persists at all.
Blended learning appears to have become accepted as a foregone conclusion for US schools, with little acknowledgement of how radical it is.
When students are actually in the schools, the overarching theme will be one of isolation: desks spaced apart and turned to face the same direction; closure of communal areas such as dining halls; staggered arrival and departure times to avoid any socializing before and after school; limited extracurricular activities; low-occupancy buses with one child per bench, seated in every other row. This deprivation of touch and physical proximity to others is unhealthy in the short term. Over a span of many months (and perhaps more than a year), one must imagine an existential toll on children when their physical experience with each other is that of repelling magnets.
In theory, many US schools could choose to avoid the most oppressive measures. The CDC itself presents a graded set of safety rules—some for “distancing,” others for “enhanced distancing”—that are meant to correspond to different levels of disease risk in the community. The phrases if possible and if feasible are peppered throughout the document, which also notes that “all decisions about following these recommendations should be made in collaboration with local health officials and other state and local authorities.”
But veering from the CDC’s or states’ advice would require a renegade spirit not likely to be found among those who’ve risen in such bureaucracies. While hedged language empowers localities to make choices on their own, an official guideline that suggests doing something “if possible” is like a mafioso asking a shopkeeper to do him “a favor.” I live in New York state, where guidelines for reopening have not yet been issued by the governor’s office. Yet the superintendent of my district’s schools has already sent an email to parents suggesting that we procure face shields for our children for the fall.
When much of the world reopened their schools this past spring, America neglected to follow. Now, the US seems eager to copy the most excessive measures implemented elsewhere, despite the evidence of minimal pediatric risk and infectiousness, and against the advice of many epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and pediatricians, and with a seeming obliviousness to their costs.
For years, many schools have had their drama and arts departments budgets reduced. It would be a sour irony if mandatory masks, half-vacant school buses, and shuttered jungle gyms ended up as our schools’ most grand theatrical production.
*Thanks to Sondra Cuban for sending me this article.