Our schools just opened in person for the first time last Friday and if I could bottle my 6th grader’s excitement about going back, I would. He had his bag all packed and his Celtics mask laid out the night before —this was, after all, his first time going to school since March. A couple of nights before the big day, he laid between his dad and me on our bed to watch his “school orientation” on Zoom, during which the administrators explained what to expect and shared photos of how things would look—signage on bathroom stalls, taped off areas around teachers’ desks, spacing of cafeteria tables and new drop-off and pick-up procedures. My husband and I repeatedly said during the presentation, “wow, this took a lot of work.” The precautions and safety protocols were many — anyone who thinks reopening is easy or “no big deal” clearly does not understand what goes into getting schools up and running during a pandemic. It was reassuring but also an important reminder that it’s easy to overlook the behind-the-scenes work that goes into serving our children.
While the battle over the wisdom of reopening schools (or not reopening) continues across the nation and here in Rhode Island, there is good reason to believe that schools are not “super spreaders” of Covid-19. Emily Oster, a professor at Brown University, recently wrote an article in The Atlantic that sheds scientifically-based light on the fraught subject. She concludes that fears from the summer appear to have been overblown.
Despite a few viral photos of crowded high school hallways, the evidence is pointing in one direction and, so far, K12 schools are not the COVID-19 petri dishes that people feared. Oster rightly cites “fear and bad press” as principal drivers in keeping schools closed from Chicago to Houston to Los Angeles. The very same people who wear t-shirts and hold signs that say “believe science” suddenly put their fingers in their ears so they could ignore the science and instead shut the school doors to millions of students. As Oster mentions in her piece, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo went so far as to say “that businesses were not ‘mass spreaders as opposed to schools, and subsequently announced that he would close schools in hot-spot areas.” He is either woefully misinformed about the evidence or simply being dishonest.
It is certainly possible that trend lines could change as the cold weather brings with it greater risk for transmission and community spread. And if that’s the case, it will show up in Professor’s Oster’s work because she plans to continue collecting data and helping us to understand what it means for our children’s schools. I think she gets it exactly right when she says, “we do not want to be cavalier or put people at risk. But by not opening, we are putting people at risk, too.”
There is nothing cavalier about how my children’s schools have handled re-opening. On the contrary, tremendous care has been taken to protect students and staff. And while only going to school two days a week is hardly ideal, it’s a lot better than nothing.
This piece first ran with a different title in the author’s local paper here.