For now, and at least until COVID-19 vaccines earn emergency approval for use in children ages 12 and younger, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone going back to school in the autumn mask up regardless of individual immunization status. What’s more, schools should continue to practice social distancing, with at least three feet between one student and the next. But the CDC is still adamant that in-person education must and shall return in the fall. Despite the mitigation requirements, states and municipalities are advised to avoid 2020-style remote learning or a hybridized schedule—even if that means abandoning social distancing.
That is a valuable concession to the real world—a world in which Americans learned at great personal expense that atomized learning puts children at a disadvantage. And given the relatively low risk from infection with COVID-19 among children, the benefits associated with such draconian mitigation strategies are vastly outweighed by their costs.
And yet, a distant drumbeat grows increasingly audible as the 2021-2022 school year approaches. It is the frenzied sound of alarm over the unknown threat that COVID’s delta variant represents to children and the adults around them. It is a chorus of concerned voices raising unanswerable questions about the risk that in-person education presents to the progress America has made toward herd immunity. And the panic around rising COVID cases has lent new gravity to their arguments.
Though the statistics remain murky, mainstream media outlets are beginning to report anecdotes from the parts of the country hardest hit by the delta variant. And included in those anecdotes are stories about children’s hospitals seeing an unprecedented influx of young COVID patients. “At least 81 children in the U.S. died of COVID between March and July, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” NBC News reported, “and many doctors warn that the situation is likely to get worse.”
And though this mortality risk is roughly on par with seasonal flu, death is hardly the only bad outcome kids can suffer as a result of a COVID infection. According to a New York Times report on the ordeal endured by one young man who struggles with the aftereffects of a COVID infection, even contracting the disease sounds like a harrowing experience. Children can suffer from “lingering post-COVID neurological, physical, or psychiatric symptoms” including “fatigue, headaches, brain fog, memory and concentration difficulties, sleep disturbances, ongoing change in smell and taste,” one infectious disease specialist told the Times.
To hear Vox.com’s Anna North tell it, the primary obstacle to the resumption of in-person education is the public’s frustrating failure to resign itself to the notion that “school isn’t going to be ‘normal’ this fall.” According to experts and public health officials, “masking, virus testing, and other mitigation factors can make a return to in-person school safe and feasible.” And yet, some states and districts are resisting masking requirements for students, teachers, administrators, and support staff alike.
“Schools can stay open even in areas of high community spread, experts say — if everyone wears masks,” North continued. But what about those areas without mask mandates or high rates of noncompliance? Vox concludes ominously that those who want to avoid that risk may not have “remote options” for their children, and there’s nothing fair about that.
Meanwhile, New York, ground zero for the pandemic in the United States and host to America’s largest school system, is beginning to waver in its resolve to reopen its doors to students, masked or otherwise. New York state has “quietly” abandoned its plan to issue statewide reopening guidance for schools. Public health officials are shifting their focus from projecting a “sense of urgency” around “resuming in-person learning” to allaying the “fears of parents” who are terrified to send their children back into these institutions.
The drumbeat is getting louder now. How can you social distance in schools situated in densely populated environments where there might be as many as 30 students per classroom? It’s just not physically possible. “It’s taking me back to where I was last fall, really nervous,” one teacher told EdWeek. “We’re going to have to quarantine students who don’t want to be quarantined and do [simultaneous] online and in-person [instruction], which is the last thing my teachers want to be doing.”
Given the risks, school boards that had once sworn off remote learning are once again establishing a “virtual learning option” for families that opt-in. And there is tremendous pressure on those districts that haven’t done so to prepare for the return of the hybrid model. “Parents should expect interruptions to in-person school when COVID cases surge in the community,” the New York Times bluntly warned.
And just as public health officials mounted a successful pressure campaign forcing the CDC to abandon its permissive posture toward fully vaccinated Americans, those who fear the return of full-day, in-person education may yet convince the Biden administration of their wisdom. Parents should plan accordingly.