This week, federal health officials may have confirmed something that has become increasingly clear as the pandemic drags on: Kids should be in classrooms. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that the “preponderance of available evidence” shows that with adequate precautions, socially distanced classrooms are safe. Contact and other high-risk sports, however, remain a serious concern.
On Long Island, there have been next to no examples of in-school virus transmission. Educators and administrators have proven to be adept at meeting the extraordinary challenges presented by the disease. They are so good that in some places, a school nurse or teacher has been the first to notice a child with signs of Covid-19 picked up at home or elsewhere.
At the outset of the pandemic in the United States, what to do about schools was unclear. High rates of illness were being found in places where people lived close together, like nursing homes, or worked in proximity to others, as in meat-packing plants. No one knew whether sending children to school would increase the spread of the virus even more. Now, as the C.D.C. has said, parents and educators can be more confident about a return to some kind of normalcy. The trade-off, according to the C.D.C., is that most sports, indoor dining, and poorly ventilated gyms and workout studios should be curtailed in order to slow community spread of the disease, which could overwhelm the medical system.
The C.D.C. has pointed to studies showing that schools are far safer than other activities. In example after example, having children in classrooms was not a significant risk. In North Carolina, after nine weeks in which there were more than 90,000 students and staff back in schools, there were just 32 cases of infections acquired in schools, as compared to almost 800 in the community at large — and not one case of student-to-staff transmission.
In Wisconsin, of the 191 cases in a region of more than 5,000 students and staff with good compliance with mask recommendations, just 7 were traced to in-school contact. By far, the greater risk consistently came from gatherings and social events, as well as having visitors in the home. And what schools can provide for children — widespread Covid testing, free meals, social interaction, special needs instruction, mental health services, better academic achievement, even identifying concerns about child abuse — makes it all the more important that they remain open.
Education over the internet is not the same. Though it is often referred to as remote learning, that is overly optimistic and should more frankly be thought of as remote instruction. Sitting at home by a computer in a shared or distracting space would be a challenge even for the most highly motivated students. For those whose minds tend to wander or are more interested in TikTok videos, teachers have a struggle on their hands just trying to get them to pay attention.
Educators, school staff, and administrators did not know any of this when they began to welcome students back for in-person learning. To a large extent, they were on the front line of a very large experiment into what worked. Their courage and creativeness are bright spots during this terrible crisis.