Public health experts have been repeating this same refrain since the summer, when many states and cities reopened businesses like bars, restaurants, and gyms — all areas where the coronavirus is thought to spread readily — without a clear plan to reopen school buildings. And the call has only gotten louder in recent weeks as cases skyrocket in a third viral wave and officials in cities like New York mull new school closures — while keeping indoor dining open.
While there remains some debate, schools don’t appear to be major sources of viral spread in this pandemic. Restaurants, bars, and gyms, however — places where adults congregate, often in close quarters and often without masks — do seem to contribute to outbreaks. Indeed, many European countries that have locked down to mitigate their second waves have allowed schools to remain open while such businesses close. “It seems very clear to me that schools ought to be our priority,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at the University of Washington, told Vox.
So why aren’t more places in the US closing the bars and keeping the schools open?
There are a lot of reasons, from agreements with teachers’ unions to pressure from restaurant and other lobbying groups to parents’ understandable fears of exposing their children — and potentially themselves — to a deadly virus. But one big reason for the seeming disconnect has gone somewhat overlooked: the lack of help from the federal government.
Money from the federal CARES Act kept many businesses afloat through shutdowns earlier this year, and expanded unemployment benefits and $1,200 stimulus checks kept many laid-off workers out of poverty. But with no more help on the horizon for businesses or ordinary people, shutdowns at the state and local level could have a steep cost, many say, leaving some local leaders hesitant to try them.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of layoffs again, and I think we’re going to see a lot of people go out of business,” Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the freelancing platform Upwork and the owner of two small businesses in Pennsylvania, told Vox.
Closing down schools, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same immediate economic impact, since teachers can still work and get paid while classes are remote. But shuttering school buildings does affect students’ learning, as well as parents’ ability to work, which will hamper any economic recovery in the future — as well as hurting kids and families today. In some ways, policymakers may be trading short-term economic damage for longer-term devastation, as an entire generation of working parents — the majority of them mothers — is forced to choose between getting a paycheck and caring for kids.
In general, the choice of restaurants over schools is yet another way the US government’s handling of the pandemic has caused needless pain, many say. “It’s not the Covid pandemic that has harmed so many businesses,” Ozimek said. “It’s our mismanagement of the Covid pandemic.”
Many places are leaving businesses open while schools are closed
While schools closed in all 50 states this spring as the first wave of the pandemic swept around the country, reopening in the fall has been a more uneven process: As of this summer, 49 percent of school districts planned for fully in-person classes, while 26 percent planned for a fully remote start and 12 percent planned on a hybrid model. Since then, some districts, especially in urban areas, have pushed back plans to return to in-person instruction as this fall’s surge in virus cases arrived.
But the evidence so far suggests that schools themselves have not been a major driver of outbreaks. In New York City, the largest district to try some in-person learning, the average test positivity rate in schools was just 0.17 percent as of last week, compared with close to 3 percent in the city as a whole. In Florida, meanwhile, reopening schools in the fall did not appear to lead to a surge in cases among children.
Some have argued that we don’t yet know enough about transmission within schools to say much about their safety, noting that little current research has focused specifically on Black and other students of color who come from communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
Meanwhile, the risks to teachers — who, as adults, are more likely to…
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