In his latest New York Times column Nikolas Kristof strays dangerously far into heresy:
Some things are true even though President Trump says them.
Trump has been demanding for months that schools reopen, and on that he seems to have been largely right. Schools, especially elementary schools, do not appear to have been major sources of coronavirus transmission, and remote learning is proving to be a catastrophe for many low-income children.
Yet America is shutting schools — New York City announced Wednesday that it was closing schools in the nation’s largest school district — even as it allows businesses like restaurants and bars to operate. What are our priorities?
I think I can answer that question. Primacy is given to the fears of teachers and staff and to what’s easy to administer.
As I pointed out in my post yesterday, the evidence that we should be keeping schools open is mounting. Not only do they not pose enhanced risks, closing them has serious costs as Mr. Kristof notes:
America’s education system already transmits advantage and disadvantage from one generation to the next: Rich kids attend rich schools that propel them forward, and low-income children attend struggling schools that hold them back.
School closures magnify these inequities, as many private schools remain open and affluent parents are better able to help kids adjust to remote learning. At the same time, low-income children fall even further behind.
It would be complicated but it seems to me that there must be some way to coordinate the needs of most students, the needs of students who are at greater risk, and the needs of teachers who are at greater risk. I can understand why administrators wouldn’t like it and unions would oppose it. Sounds like the sort of problem that could be solved with a clever computer program.
For young students, the risk of dying from Covid is lower than the risk of dying from the flu, and researchers have repeatedly found that children do not easily transmit the virus to adults. The clearest evidence comes from Sweden, which did not close elementary schools or junior high schools during the spring Covid wave, and which did not reduce class sizes or encourage students and teachers to wear face masks.
Not a single child died, and there was little effect beyond the schools, as a team of Swedish economists reports after analyzing records of Covid infections and medical treatment for the entire Swedish population. The researchers, from the universities of Stockholm and Uppsala, took advantage of a natural experiment in Sweden by comparing hundreds of thousands of parents at the junior high schools (for students aged 14 to 16), which remained open, against those at the senior high schools, which switched to online instruction for two months in the spring.
There was scant danger from the schools that remained open. The parents at those schools were 15 percent more likely to test positive for the virus than the parents whose children stayed home, but they were no more likely to be treated or hospitalized for Covid. The classroom teachers were twice as likely as the online teachers to test positive, but their infection rate was nonetheless lower than the rate among parents at either type of school. Just 0.2 percent of the classroom teachers were hospitalized for Covid, lower than the rate among parents. The Swedish researchers suggest additional protections for classroom teachers, like encouraging them to start wearing masks or allowing the older, more vulnerable ones to teach online. But after calculating that a closure of all the junior high schools would have reduced the Swedish national rate of Covid infection by a mere 1 percent, the economists conclude that closing schools is “not a particularly effective way” to stop the spread of the virus.