Comment: Closing schools won’t halt omicron; it will hurt kids

Vaccine availability and other measures are better at protecting kids than closures of schools.

By Westyn Branch-Elliman, Elissa Schechter-Perkins and Shira Doron / Special To The Washington Post

With the omicron variant raging across the country, school systems are again shutting down in-person learning as communities grope for ways to protect school staff and ease the strain on overburdened hospitals. Just this week, schools in Chicago and parts of metropolitan Washington, D.C., announced they would move temporarily to remote learning, and more are likely to head in this direction as cases of covid-19 continue to mount.

This approach is rooted in misunderstandings about how viruses spread and a refusal to acknowledge what we have learned two years into the coronavirus pandemic. We have ample evidence that closing schools is not an effective way to contain the virus and is, in fact, harmful to children. We have better ways of keeping the community safe than robbing children of valuable in-school learning.

Consider first what we know about the coronavirus, including the omicron variant. Cases in the United States started skyrocketing over the holidays, while children were home for the winter break and not in school. This is due to the properties of the virus, specifically omicron’s higher contagiousness compared with earlier variants and its ability to infect vaccinated people. This is also because of human behavior: People traveled around and gathered indoors for the holidays.

We also know from many studies from the United States and around the world that schools are not major drivers of community spread. A study published in October in the journal Nature Medicine found that, in the 12 weeks after schools reopened in 2020, there were no significant increases in hospitalizations or deaths in surrounding communities.

One reason for this is that the alternative to in-person schooling is not a perfect lockdown; people continue to mix and socialize, and most transmission occurs at home and in social settings, among family and friends when people let their guard down. Schools, on the other hand, are relatively controlled environments, where mitigation measures can be implemented and monitored.

Parents who cannot send their kids to school are forced to find other child care options, which may lead to more mixing and less consistent use of mitigation measures. And other businesses like indoor restaurants and large sports venues — where people who do not usually interact gather together and where mitigation measures such as masking cannot be enforced — remain open. For all these reasons, kids will get covid-19, whether schools are open or closed.

Another factor to consider is that we have powerful vaccines that dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease. These are widely available for school-age children, ages 5 and older, as well as adults. Many people have access to additional doses that bolster their protection against the worst outcomes. Additionally, although the case numbers are reaching record highs, a glimmer of hope is that omicron appears to cause milder disease, possibly because of mutations that render it less able to infect lung cells.

If in-person learning is not driving the exponential rise in cases or increase in hospitalization rates, then switching to remote learning clearly won’t succeed in relieving the strain on the health care system. It might even worsen it.

Schools are not islands; they exist as part of a larger, interconnected community and system. The entire complex community network, including the health care system, relies on open schools to function. More than 4.6 million health care workers are parents of children under the age of 14, according to the Center for American Progress. Many of these health care workers are women, who are responsible for the majority of child care in our society. Hospitals are already struggling with staff shortages and are on the verge of implementing crisis-level staffing to stay afloat. Closing schools will only exacerbate this strain; school closures may mean that at least some of the 30 percent of health care workers who are also parents of young children will stay home to take care of their children, worsening the health care staffing and burnout crisis.

Schools — unlike some other businesses — are essential, both for children and for working parents. We also know that remote school is a failed experiment; children have suffered learning loss, behavioral challenges abound, and the surgeon general has declared a pediatric mental health crisis.

Nevertheless, schools are closing. And in many of the districts that have not, unscientific and, in some cases, harmful mitigation measures are being implemented, such as silent lunches, instructions to pull masks down only to take bites and then pull it back up to chew, and keeping all doors and windows open in frigid environments.

Living in a constant state of fear and stress is harmful to kids. So why are school leaders doing this, at a time when children need these forms of human connection and normalcy more than ever to help alleviate so much of the damage already done? School leaders may be responding to the fear that staff and families are communicating to them, but fear-based decision-making is not appropriate at this stage of the pandemic. We now know much more than we did about how to maintain safety in school settings and about the harms we are inflicting with school closures.

The pressure on school leaders to act is understandable. Rising cases are often publicized on district dashboards, and leaders are worried they will be accused of making unsafe choices. But the reality is that doing something is not always better than doing nothing; and many of these measures undertaken out of an abundance of caution do more harm than good. The unfortunate reality is that the virus is here to stay, and there will always be another variant. The time is now to commit to putting the best interests of children first.

The other unfortunate reality is that schools across the country may be forced to close because of unsafe staffing ratios when staff members with covid-19 need to isolate. With community case rates as high as they are, some closures are inevitable. However, these closures are of practical necessity, and need to be temporary and short-lived, rather than pandemic-control policy.

Two years ago, those calling for school closures could argue that we didn’t know what the impact might be. But now we do; and they are severe. School closures are not an effective measure for controlling spread, they hurt children, and they limit our ability to keep the hospitals open. There’s no justification for putting these policy options back on the table.

Westyn Branch-Elliman is an infectious diseases specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Elissa Schechter-Perkins is vice chair of research in the department of emergency medicine at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of emergency medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

Shira Doron is an infectious-disease physician and the hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. She is an associate professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine.

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