Prevalence and Opening Schools

I’ve been making the point repeatedly that, for life to return to normal(-ish), we must lower the prevalence of people infected with COVID-19 because the best way to not get infected is to have very rare or no contact with infected people. This seems obvious, but it’s not apparent that obvious observation has driven much of the policy debate. Fortunately, Helen Jenkins and Bill Hanage, who are much smarter about this stuff than I am, explains how this relates to school opening (boldface mine):

If we want schools to open in a few months and stay open, we need to keep community transmission low. The best way to do that is to suppress the spread of the virus. That means looking at what is reopening and when, and figuring out whether those sectors of the economy are really more important than schools. All reopening will likely increase community transmission to some degree.

So what are we all willing to give up to keep in-person education on the agenda? Can you forgo a night out at a bar or a trip to a casino? Can you give up dining inside a restaurant? What are you willing to give up to ensure that school openings don’t wind up pushing us over the edge? What are we willing to sacrifice? We need to decide where our priorities as a community lie, and in a way we can all support — whether we are ourselves parents, teachers or neither. We need to face this threat together.

…We asked ourselves what would make us feel confident to send our children to school both for their safety and the safety of their communities. The answer was not just the specific precautions that were being taken in schools, or the rates of testing in our community, but the amount of transmission outside school — which directly affects the risk that the virus will make its way into school buildings.

once transmission outside the school becomes high enough, it will lead to more introductions into school, meaning that outbreaks become inevitable. And at that point, schools will be forced to close. If transmission approaches the levels of March, then entire school districts will likely close again, and we will be back where we started. And in fall and winter, social distancing will be harder than it is now, and everyone will be spending a lot more time indoors, where transmission increases.

They’re absolutely right, though, at this point, other than Hawaii, most states still have far too many cases. We need to decide now if we want schools to open in September, and take the appropriate policy measures, because many places have weeks to go before they’re in the position to reopen.

It’s going to be a long summer…

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