Comment: As covid variants march on, it’s time to protect kids

They sacrificed more than a year of school. We now must vaccinate to protect them and open schools.

By Andreas Kluth / Bloomberg Opinion

As new variants — delta, and then probably epsilon and whatever comes after — bring us more waves of covid-19 in the fall and winter, policymakers and citizens in all developed countries should say out loud and in unison: This time, let’s save our kids.

This means, yes, offering youngsters vaccinations if the parents agree, as Germany just decided to do for children older than 12, even while a commission of scientists still dithers about recommending this step.

Even more importantly, it means that the vaccine slouches among us adults should finally bare arms to build the epidemiological equivalent of a firewall around the young. I’m still against mandating shots. But the moral case for getting jabbed is now incontrovertible and overwhelming.

But above all, it means that — come fall, winter and spring — schools must stay open whether infections rise again or not.

In this pandemic so far, children have not suffered much in purely medical terms. They rarely get bad cases of the disease, although research is woefully lacking about “long covid” in young patients. They’ve instead suffered in every other way — educationally, psychologically and socially — because they can’t develop healthily without physically attending school.

In effect, we tacitly decided as societies in 2020 that we needed to circle our wagons around the most vulnerable group — the then-unvaccinated elderly — by shuttering schools, which we suspected (often without good evidence) of superspreading the virus.

In doing so we accepted that many kids would plummet into loneliness, anxiety and depression; that they would spend a sizable part of their young lives without social contacts; and that they would fall far behind in their learning; so far that they may never be able to make up the loss.

Starting in this next academic year, therefore, we must collectively return the favor: Now we adults must circle the wagons around the young, so they can resume their much needed learning and socializing.

As mentioned above, the easiest way we can do that is by getting vaccinated, if we haven’t done so already. But we can also help by foregoing some of our other relics of adult “normality,” which seem trivial compared to the needs of children. In a pinch, is it really more important to open cinemas and bars, or to keep kids in their classrooms? Next time — if there has to be a next time — let everything else go into lockdown before even looking at schools.

Even as we open schools again, of course, we must take many precautions, which may become quasi-permanent; and why not? The kids should generally wear masks, unless common sense suggests a situation is safe (as when gathering outdoors, say). Windows should stay open as long as the weather allows it. And schools should install air filters, which we as taxpayers should fund generously and without whining.

But the in-person teaching — by vaccinated educators — and the learning must go on. Education is a right too fundamental to sacrifice for the sake of “flattening curves.” For that matter, as we’re learning to live with this virus for the long term, we should also bid farewell to infection numbers as a metric for policy, and base our decisions exclusively on hospitalizations and deaths, as we would in a flu outbreak.

And yes, I say all this as an irate and worried dad. Overall, we’ve managed the pandemic reasonably well in countries like Germany, where I happen to live, especially given that we always had bad, shifting or contradictory information to work with. But we weren’t being fair to the kids. Whatever the virus has in store for us, let’s put the children first from now on.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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