CDC guidance shows no easy answers on opening schools

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance last week on the necessary conditions for opening schools in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidelines address one of the most excruciating debates of the past year. The debate over our schools involves health risks, educational priorities, and income disparities that hit home for a large percentage of Americans.

Local communities across the country have struggled with decisions on opening schools since the pandemic hit last March. My district in New Jersey shut down last March, reopened for two months in October for elementary school students whose parents wanted them to receive in person schooling, closed down amidst the wave of infections in November, and this week is reopening for all students who want to attend in person.

The question of opening schools hits so hard because it involves trading off risks between different populations. Opening the schools means that teachers are going to have to be indoors with students and enforce mask mandates and social distancing or increase their risk of infection. Also the more that different people are exposed to each other, the more chance for spread of the virus among the general population.

On the other hand, there are also risks from keeping schools closed. There have been numerous reports of growing mental health risks and even suicides stemming from the isolation of remote schooling. And because it is easier for wealthier families to weather having their children at home being schooled (and to purchase the computer equipment necessary to effectively engage with remote school), the past year has exacerbated income inequalities in a manner that could easily reverberate for a generation.

Two other factors make the debates even harder. The first is that human beings are not great at estimating risks. Some people will overestimate the risk of COVID-19 infection while others will underestimate it. And the long term risk of missing in-person school and social contact for a year is even harder to internalize and assess. 

Second, the factual basis with which to estimate these risks is ever changing. What we know about COVID-19 is different than what we thought we knew a year ago (remember when we were all wearing gloves?). The key questions of how much the virus infects children of varying ages and how effectively those children transmit the disease remains uncertain. New variants of the virus may multiply the danger but will certainly multiply the uncertainty.

For most of the past year, we were encouraged to seek simple answers to these complicated questions.  When he was president, Donald Trump advocated loudly for school opening saying at one point, “My view is the schools should open, this thing is going away.” Trump’s position led his supporters to loudly advocate for school opening and his opponents just as loudly to decry the stance. What should have been a debate that was not necessarily partisan immediately became polarizing.

The CDC guidance, which likely would never have seen the light of day under the previous president, gives us a much more balanced take on the question of school reopening. It recognizes that there are risk-risk tradeoffs and encourages schools both to open but also to take steps that minimize the risk of doing so such as mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. It is certainly not perfect — any guidance based on evolving science won’t be (for example, it has been criticized for a limited discussion on ventilation).

As president, Donald Trump gave us certainty when the facts usually called for nuance.

It is too much to hope that our civic dialogue (especially on social media) will change just because we have a new president. But a president that allows agencies to rely upon their expertise and give the best advice possible given rampant uncertainty is a necessary precondition to all of us appreciating the challenge associated with questions that have no easy answers.

The only wrong answers on opening schools are coming from people who say those answers are obvious.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.

Tags CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic Donald Trump Face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education Joe Biden Occupational safety and health Reopening schools Social distancing Trade-off

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