Follow the Science, Reopen Schools Nationwide

Schools across the country must decide to hold in-person instruction or online-learning.

During his campaign, President Joe Biden constantly intoned that his administration would “follow the science” in regards to COVID-19 policies. Unfortunately, just one month into the presidency, the Biden administration has already broken this promise. 

Recently released CDC guidelines for school reopenings fly in the face of scientific consensus. These guidelines will keep schools closed and cause needless suffering among families and children. 

First, look at the science. During the Spanish flu pandemic, children were very susceptible to that virus and died at high rates. It was this tragedy, and numerous flu epidemics taking many children’s lives, that informed the decision to close schools in the spring. We were faced with a novel virus, and schools had historically been key vectors of viral transmission. Then, data from around the world quickly emerged suggesting that children were less likely to develop significant or even moderate disease and were not spreading the virus as much as adults, suggesting schools could reopen safely. Subsequent research has only further solidified this scientific reality. 

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently released findings confirming this phenomenon. In Mississippi, they report that among children between 0-18 years old, “having attended gatherings and social functions outside the home as well as having had visitors in the home was associated with increased risk of infection; however, in-person school attendance during the 14 days prior to diagnosis was not.” 

The researchers also report that “In the fall of 2020, 11 school districts in North Carolina with more than 90,000 students and staff were open for in-person education for 9 weeks. During this time, within-school transmissions were very rare (32 infections acquired in schools; 773 community-acquired infections) and there were no cases of student-to-staff transmission...” 

In Europe, schools have been open for months, as countries have conducted a data-driven policy approach to school reopening. The European Centre for Disease Control published a report in December that looked at countries throughout the EU and, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers concluded: “schools were not associated with accelerating community transmission.” 

Joseph Allen, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and Helen Jenkins, a professor of biostatistics at Boston University’s School of Public Health, recently explained the situation succinctly. 

“The science is clear: Kids — especially young children — can get and transmit COVID-19, but they are less likely to do so than adults,” Allen and Jenkins said. “Kids can die from the disease, but the risk of that happening is one in a million; they are about 10 times as likely to die by suicide. Teachers also have lower risk than other occupations and can be kept safe through adherence to universal precautions.” 

If the science is this clear, then why did the CDC release guidance that would keep schools closed potentially through next fall, which would mean a third school year disrupted due to coronavirus? Why would the CDC implement scientifically dubious recommendations, despite the undeniable evidence that remote learning has led to a mental health crisis amongst students and rapidly falling test scores, including widening racial and socioeconomic educational attainment disparities? The answer is clear: teachers’ unions. 

President Biden said during the campaign that he would have a “teacher-oriented Department of Education.” (Why not a student-centric DOE?) He also noted that teachers’ unions would get the support they “need” given that the First Lady is a long-time member of a teachers union. In fact, Jill Biden met with the presidents of the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions at the White House on her second day as First Lady. 

It looks like President Biden has kept those promises, as according to the Washington Post, the CDC met with “stakeholders” when writing its guidance, including having meetings directly between the country’s two largest teachers’ union presidents and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. 

Teachers’ unions have been leading the effort across the country to keep schools closed until their demands are met. It’s a hold-up, with America’s school children being held hostage. I say this not to disparage individual teachers, many of whom have gone to incredible lengths to support their students during this challenging time. 

I do mean to criticize teachers’ unions and their incentive structure that is misaligned with what is best for students. For example, a study from the fall found that states with more powerful teachers’ unions were more likely to keep schools closed, all other things equal. Unions have cited hundreds of billions of dollars in increased funding, which would be a windfall for their balance sheets, as a prerequisite to returning to school. They claim this money is necessary to safely reopen schools. They are wrong. 

According to the Cato Institute, the per-pupil cost of implementing appropriate virus mitigation efforts comes out to around $450. Between the numerous coronavirus relief bills that have already been passed, public schools have already received approximately $3,920 per-pupil, more than enough to cover precautionary expenses. The schools haven’t even spent all of these funds. According to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, from last March to November, public school bureaucracies spent only $3 billion of their allocated $12.8 billion, and only three states have spent more than half of the money. 

I am not suggesting that teachers and students return to unsafe environments. However, public school bureaucracies are sitting on the money needed to reopen safely and implement science-based mitigation efforts. Further delaying school reopening until teachers’ unions’ unrealistic demands are met needs to be called out for the sham it is.

Teachers’ unions know that if they continue to hold out, the mounting pressure from parents to return to school no matter the cost and their friends in the White House will deliver them a massive payday. It’s a shameful tactic. 

Officials around the country, especially President Biden, need to embrace the science and push back against the opportunistic teachers’ unions. America’s schoolchildren and families are counting on them to prevent even more unnecessary damage.