COVID, Closings, and Context

What the ongoing arguments about school closings ignore is context, in several ways.

Yes, there were other ways to control the pandemic (though it’s worth noting that, at local scales, we’ve historically closed schools for short periods to control influenza and other outbreaks–this isn’t new). We could have improved ventilation, restricted other activities such as indoor dining, done more masking, and increased vaccination rate. We could have and should have done these things, but we did not*. I won’t speak for others, but I was arguing that schools should be the last places to close (other than hospitals), and many epidemiologists were making the argument that we need to keep schools open, so what other protective measures will we take? (Helen Jenkins at Northeastern University wrote multiple op-eds in this vein). The reality is that we didn’t do the other things to prevent spread (and, in some cases, weren’t allowed to enact these precautions–thanks SCOTUS!), so closing schools was the one option local governments had.

As others have noted throughout the pandemic, the communities (lower income) that typically had the fewest protections were those that need them the most, and we failed them. Multiple stories have described how money that was supposed to have been spent on ventilation and testing was spent on other things–and this typically happened in lower income areas too.

But for me the most glaring lack of context is the active ignoring the role children play in spreading COVID to adults. In those communities that were hardest hit, those adults include older, middle-aged and elderly family members (‘the kids and grandkids murder their parents and grandparents’) as caretakers. The question that isn’t asked is how many more deaths would there have been without school closures, especially in lower income communities. The idea that, if we hadn’t shuttered schools in the actual America in which most Americans live (not well-off academics who can send their kids to top public schools or private schools), there wouldn’t have been a significant increase in adult deaths (not to mention hospitalizations and long COVID) is laughable. Yet that counterfactual is completely ignored. The question should be, how many more deaths were acceptable to open schools sooner? Which is an ugly question, and one many are desperate to avoid.

*Consider that, right now, pediatric wards are slammed with respiratory diseases, and yet, no authorities are vigorously encouraging mask wearing, never mind actually requiring mask wearing. If not now, when?

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