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Omicron and K-12

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Biden said today that “[w]e can keep our K-through-12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.” I don’t think this should be particularly controversial. To state what should be obvious:

  • The costs of closing K-12 schools (most prominently that remote learning at that level doesn’t work and disrupted childcare arrangements that are disproportionately borne by women) are higher than closing restaurants and bars, although both are considerable.
  • The dangers posed by dine-in restaurants and bars (mostly adults who can’t mask) are obviously much greater than schools (mostly kids and everyone can mask.)

Are even the bluest jurisdictions seriously considering closing restaurants and bars? Given that they opened up even before vaccines were widely available, almost certainly not. And there is absolutely no possible public health defense for open bars and closed K-12 schools. If the situation gets dire enough that the bars close, then we can consider the question of closing K-12 schools then, although everything should be done to keep them open.

It should also be said, though, that during surges this won’t always be easy:

Districts have mostly reassured families that despite targeted classroom closures to contain spread of the virus, they plan to continue in-person learning until the Christmas break and reopen as planned in January. New York City, Boston and Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, were among the large school systems that said they would not shift districtwide to remote learning, or would do so only if forced to by public health officials.

Still, the alarming spread of the virus could expose the rickety infrastructure that has kept schools running through most of this year. Many schools are still in need of substitute teachers and bus drivers, and can ill afford an outbreak that would send even more staff members home. There still are not enough rapid tests to quickly screen whole classrooms or schools. And some districts may have a tough time meeting demand for online learning as children are quarantined or concerned parents choose to keep them home.

School officials must simultaneously address the devastating impact of the pandemic on students: academic deficits, mental health struggles and labor shortages.

Keeping schools open is an important goal, but opposition to other mitigation measures will make it practically more difficult even when the intention is to keep them open.

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