We Opened the Schools and ... It Was Fine

Many parents feared the worst, but so far, no widespread COVID crisis has come to America’s classrooms.

Illustration of a keyhole showing a kid walking down a path to school.
The Atlantic

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, many states and towns closed everything, including schools. Public-health experts didn’t know enough about how COVID was spread or how contagious it was, and the health-care system was overwhelmed in parts of the country. The American public could see the disaster unfolding in Italy, and many people believed that the U.S. needed to act before things got out of control.

By the fall of 2020, still without vaccinations, many older Americans continued to be at significant risk. Given that kids could bring infections home, even if they weren’t at huge risk themselves, many schools remained online, in full or in part.

By the start of the next school year, vaccines were widely available for anyone age 12 or older. And many schools that reopened were able to implement measures that other institutions struggled with. Even so, people continued to worry about the danger that schools posed to society.

Then classes began, and … widespread doom never really came—or, if it did, it didn’t come from schools.

The Delta surge began long before classes resumed, and looking at the state-by-state data, you’d be hard-pressed to find bumps that can be pinned on the beginning of the semester. Last year, no surge happened in September either. Most states didn’t see any significant rise in COVID cases last fall until well into October.

Schools aren’t the problem. They never have been.

One of the frustrating things about the pandemic has been our inability, even at this late date, to understand why surges occur. They hit communities with mask mandates, and communities without. Last year, we believed that the surge from October through February was caused by seasonal changes. The cold drove everyone indoors, where COVID was much more likely to spread, and therefore cases developed more quickly. This year, though, the surge began long before the weather turned cold. Vaccines are certainly protective and likely mitigate the severity of surges locally. Even so, things may worsen again—the data right now aren’t looking good for much of the country, and many people fear more hardship to come from the emergent Omicron variant—but no predictable pattern has emerged to explain what sets off periods of dramatic increases.

What is pretty certain, however, is that schools are not to blame. They didn’t cause the surges. They didn’t cause the massive numbers of hospitalizations and deaths that Florida experienced this summer and that Michigan appears to be experiencing now. They haven’t done nearly as much damage as bars, restaurants, and indoor events (including kids’ birthday parties), which never seem to receive the same amount of attention.

This doesn’t mean that kids aren’t getting COVID, of course. It doesn’t mean that kids aren’t in danger, haven’t gotten sick, haven’t been hospitalized by the thousands, and even died. Kids catch COVID, and transmission does occur in schools, but it is rare when precautions are taken. Because of this, the level of school transmission is sometimes lower than that of the surrounding community. Most schools are on guard, at least. Many require masks. More are being thoughtful about close contacts and group dynamics, and they enforce isolation and quarantine as much as they can. That may be inconvenient, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t made a difference.

This is especially true in higher education. Many colleges have led the way in the past year in protocols, testing, surveillance, and even vaccinations. And they’ve consequently been able to steer back to a state of near-normalcy. This seems to perplex much of the country, which doesn’t appear to appreciate how safe things are on campuses today. Images of packed football stadiums this year have been followed by predictions of horror to come. Many people see kids screaming and yelling in huge numbers and assume that outbreaks are imminent. For the most part, they haven’t occurred. Football games are outdoor activities, and those are pretty safe. Further, many more of those kids are likely vaccinated than the surrounding public, and vaccinations work.

Some colleges made perfunctory-at-best efforts to control COVID, which did lead to some avoidable outbreaks, and even some closures. Other universities may arguably be going too far. Some are engaging in massive testing programs of the already vaccinated, which may pick up infections that are unlikely to be contagious. Others are limiting how many friends students can see in a day, or asking asymptomatic, vaccinated people to mask up outside and even in between bites and sips if they’re drinking or eating too slowly. Some schools have reverted to online-only classes because of breakthrough cases.

It’s important to understand that preventing new cases completely is nearly impossible. Continuing to regulate behavior when you’ve already achieved a massive level of vaccination is likely to backfire. A school cannot expect to have no COVID cases when the community has COVID. Our goal needs to be “safe enough,” not perfection. That’s the approach many schools have taken, including Indiana University, where I serve as chief health officer.

The public can stop fixating on schools. Schools are open and kids are safe—especially now that most can be vaccinated. We should celebrate that and stop holding these essential institutions to a standard that no other is even close to achieving.