Mom’s rules for a happy ‘new normal’ school year

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We need new rules for the new omicron variant of COVID-19 to have a happy, normal school year in 2022. The new rules should be much the same as those my mom’s generation followed many years ago. Here are six key ones: 

1. Get vaccinated. When Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine arrived, my mom was among the first to insist that we be inoculated. That way we would not suffer on crutches like the lady with the beautiful voice who sang in our church choir. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the chances of young people aged 12 to 18 becoming hospitalized for COVID are vanishingly small if they have had their shots. Only 0.002 out of every thousand are at risk of becoming that seriously ill, less than one-tenth the rate for those not vaccinated.  

2. Wash your hands before eating, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and stay home when sick. For children and young people, the CDC says the chances of being hospitalized for influenza are four per 1,000, over 100 times the rate for COVID-19. To help guard against all contagious diseases, my mom, a teacher, insisted that her kids follow proper sanitation practices. 

3. Allow the vaccinated to choose whether to wear a mask. Among adults, fewer than 0.04 out of every 1,000 are hospitalized with COVID, about 1/20th the rate of the unvaccinated. Since risks to teachers are trivial, let children and young people enjoy their social, emotional and educational lives to the full. Besides, it may motivate the unvaccinated to join the happy crowd. To encourage others, Mom gave out gold stars for good deeds. Apply this ancient principle. 

4. Report sickness (hospitalizations), not infection. Infections are a meaningless number. Ten times as many people are infected as are officially reported, scientists say. Among the officially reported infections, only 4 percent of the officially reported result in hospitalization. With omicron, that percentage is falling rapidly. Keep the focus on relevant information, especially when COVID mutations are becoming less potent.   

5. Report sicknesses (hospitalizations) by vaccination status. The massive disparity in the numbers will encourage parents to vaccinate their children. Once again, follow mom and apply the gold-star principle.

6. Do not test and quarantine unless the student or staff member is sick. Testing relentlessly creates a climate of fear that prevents pursuit of one’s education or life’s work. The National Football League saved its season by abandoning testing for all but the unvaccinated and observably ill. My parents sent me to school regardless of the number of chicken pox cases in town. I got the disease, and, much later, I got shingles, a condition reserved for chicken-pox survivors. That’s not good, but people thought learning and living a regular life was more important than avoiding all health risks. 

Before COVID-19, most everyone knew that contagious diseases were everywhere and vaccinations were few. But they also knew that if one obsessed about such matters, it destroyed one’s capacity to live, learn and be happy. No one wore masks during flu season, influenza numbers were seldom reported even when they spiked, and everyone looked askance at those who failed to wash their hands, refused to cover their mouth when they sneezed or coughed, or came to school sick. Applying practices people have learned over the centuries is the best way to return to normalcy.

Paul E. Peterson is a professor and the director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. 

Tags coronavirus coronavirus restrictions SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant schools reopening Vaccination

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