The past year of COVID-19 has been so terrible that many people struggle to imagine any return to normalcy. More than 500,000 Americans have died. The continued shutdown of schools has led to rising rates of depression and anxiety, unhealthy weight gain, and self-harm among students. Now, because of the rapid development and distribution of highly effective vaccines against COVID-19, a long period of devastation for American families—including the children who have been out of classrooms for so long—is coming to an end. Despite the amazing solution of vaccines, however, many educators, government officials, and media commentators cannot seem to permit themselves any optimism yet about when school closures and other emergency restrictions might be eased.
Officials across the United States had to err on the side of caution last March and shut almost everything down, including schools. Too much about the novel coronavirus was unknown. Scientists quickly came to conclusions about which mitigation procedures worked to minimize risk. When measures including masks, physical distancing, and better ventilation were put into practice, people performing essential jobs did not get sick at work. But many schools remained closed. Vaccines were then rapidly developed, and are starting to be distributed more nimbly in the U.S. At this point, the end of the pandemic is not just a glimmer in our eye, but a reality coming closer and closer for countries with a brisk vaccine rollout. But the public narrative in the United States seems to still be swirling around three depressing themes: (1) alarm about more infectious variants of the coronavirus; (2) uncertainty about whether vaccines will stop asymptomatic as well as symptomatic infection; and (3) disagreement about whether schools can safely reopen when not everyone is vaccinated. Regrettably, unwarranted pessimism about the first two issues will complicate the third—despite an emerging consensus among health experts that opening schools is paramount for student learning and mental health.