Haste to Reopen Schools Impedes Recovery

The rapidity of the reopening is irresponsible and places the greater population at risk.

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After a year of Zoom fatigue, pandemic optimism rules the day as vaccinations ramp up. “The worst of the pandemic is over,” sings New York Magazine. The New York City Department of Education, whose speed seems driven by this state of euphoria, announced that public high schools would reopen on March 22. There are many reasons for this decision: virtual learning does not work for everyone, many students have seen their performance and mental health suffer, and it is difficult to keep up with extracurriculars. It has been a drain on some parents too, who used to rely on their children going to school during their busy workdays. However, the rapidity of the reopening is irresponsible and places the greater population at risk.

While most NYC teachers are now vaccinated, many remain unvaccinated, and three in four New Yorkers have yet to get their first shot. Sending 55 thousand students into indoor buildings where COVID-19 has the chance to spread through aerosols, especially when some of the more transmissible strains are circulating, is a serious roll of the dice when it comes to the safety of those who the students live with. We must not throw caution to the wind despite our desperation to return to a life that at least somewhat resembles the one we lived pre-pandemic. Doing so only brings the risk of reversing the progress we have made so far.

The process of reopening school comes with safety protocols in place, including masks, six-feet-apart distancing, and “pod” organization to prevent students in different classrooms from mingling. However, it’s not clear that there’s been enough time to fine-tune these systems and ensure they work. The protocols also appear less rigid than before. For instance, a confirmed COVID-19 case will prompt the quarantining of a classroom but not the rest of the school. This response ignores the likelihood of transmission through vents and shared air circulation as well as the transportation that students take to school.

This commute, incidentally, is another large concern: most students cannot drive themselves to school, and only some have rides, exposing many to the dangers of crowded public transportation. While mask adoption in NYC has been a positive development, face coverings are not foolproof, especially as most of the masks that people wear are not medical grade. Certain types of masks, such as neck gaiters and bandannas, have been shown to be less effective at preventing the spread of airborne virus-filled particles. The protocols make no distinction between mask types or insist on the more effective N-95 mask, which is a worrying indicator.

Moreover, recently published research studies suggest that schools have not played a large role in community virus spread. However, these studies are likely influencing the wave of public opinion and articles in favor of an immediate return to in-person classes. Many reports have analyzed regions of the U.S. where school reopenings have occurred and concluded that the infection rate was not significant, especially when compared to surrounding communities without reopenings. However, other studies paint a different picture: the answer to whether school reopenings have led to increased spread depends on the situation. According to research published by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Educational Research (CALDER) and based on evidence from Michigan and Washington, while in-person schooling has little effect on the incidence of transmission in places with low pre-existing COVID case counts, school openings have led to a considerably greater spread in areas with high pre-existing case counts.

New York undeniably falls in the second, high-risk category, with a moving average of around 3,000 new cases per day. Moreover, NYC has qualities, such as its unusual density and crowded public transportation, that have made it an outlier in the pandemic so far, earning the dubious title of the epicenter of the pandemic. Few other locations in the world have hit a moving daily average of 7,000 cases (as New York City did just a few months ago). As the CALDER data indicates, what may have happened during school openings in more rural and suburban environments may not be replicated in New York. Thus, many of the pro-school-opening studies should be looked at skeptically. Just because elementary and middle schools are open does not necessarily mean that it is safe for high schools to reopen; multiple studies have found that adolescents above 15 are three times as likely to transmit COVID-19 as pre-pubescent children.

Due to NYC’s demonstrated propensity for COVID to spread rapidly through its dense population, we should err on the side of caution. While some studies seem encouraging, they are not conclusive enough to completely throw out all preceding care. Doing so places our entire city at risk. Nonetheless, there needs to be some reasonable standard to allow students to return to their in-person classes, which by all accounts are more effective for academic performance and better for mental health. The data introduced by CALDER’s research only accounted for populations with lower infection rates than 20 cases per 100 thousand members of the community; it provided no evidence stating that school reopening would not impact areas with higher infection rates. For New York City, this process would require case counts to come down by about half of the current rate in order to reopen. We should demand a standard based on solid data and a recognition of the risks inherent in reopening schools but that still promises an end to Zoom class.