Let’s start with South Korea. In July, a large Korean survey found that children ages 10 to 19 spread the coronavirus about as efficiently as, or even more aggressively than, older adults. (It found that kids under 10 did not transmit the virus as much.) This frightening conclusion was widely interpreted to rule out the possibility of in-person school for any children in fifth grade or above. But in August, the same Korean research team caveated those conclusions, saying it couldn’t prove whether the children in the study were infecting their parents, or whether those parents were infecting their kids, or whether entire households were being exposed by a third party.
More infamous was the reported outbreak at a Jerusalem high school over the summer, which made headlines around the world. The New York Times’ summary was representative: “When Covid Subsided, Israel Reopened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well.” Here’s how the Times described the outbreak:
The Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May. Within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world. The virus rippled out to the students’ homes and then to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives.
The Israeli lesson seemed simple: If you open your schools, cases will explode, the outbreak will reverberate throughout the country, and people will die.
Except it wasn’t that simple. Last week, a follow-up study of the Israel cluster found that what had been universally described as a school outbreak was really nothing of the sort. At the same time that Israel reopened schools, it eased restrictions on large group gatherings. “Easing restrictions on large scale gatherings was the major influence on this resurgence,” the authors concluded. “No increase was observed in COVID-19 … following school reopening.” The causal chain described by The New York Times was backwards. The real story went like this: Relax social-distancing measures in your community without vaccines, see cases explode, and then watch the outbreak ripple into schools.
Chris Cook: Why British kids went back to school, and American kids did not
As the evidence of children’s COVID-19 risk has diminished in the past six months, the evidence that families are struggling with school closures has mounted.
“If you ask me whether we are doing our duty as a society to look after children, my answer would be ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Matthew Snape, a pediatric researcher at the University of Oxford, told me. “There is clear evidence that shutting schools harms students directly, in terms of both their education and their mental and social health.”
Although the long-term scholastic and social effects of a year of remote learning on this generation of children are not yet clear, what we know already is damning enough: Remote learning has gutted public schools as high-income parents pull their kids into private schools and bespoke learning pods. Calls to mental-health hotlines have increased. In Las Vegas, home to the nation’s fifth-largest school district, a cluster of student suicides has pushed local officials to phase in elementary schools. More indirectly, school closures also result in the delay of immunization programs, interrupt free-lunch programs, and make impossible the edifying effects of play.