Stop Keeping Healthy Kids Home From School

Policies that require contacts of those with COVID-19 to quarantine are doing a lot of harm for little benefit.

A photo of kids sitting on a carpet in a classroom.
Kathryn Gamble / Bloomberg / Getty

When America experiences a COVID surge, an increase in safety measures is expected, and wise. When a surge passes, we should decrease those measures. We have repeatedly failed to do so in schools, and children deserve better. In particular, school policies that keep healthy children home need to be relaxed—and soon.

Current CDC guidelines advise people with COVID-19 that they can return to society (wearing a mask) after five days of isolation if they’re feeling better. Unvaccinated people who have a known COVID exposure are also asked to quarantine for five days. Many K–12 schools go far beyond this, requiring that sick kids isolate longer, and some even still require that a healthy child—someone who is not known to have COVID—who was exposed to the coronavirus stay home for 10 days. Many preschools, where kids cannot yet be vaccinated and some can’t mask, continue to quarantine whole classes for 10 days when there is one case in a room.

These policies likely prevent some viral spread, but they also do a lot of harm. Each time we shut down a classroom, we force parents to take time off from work, which for many Americans has brutal financial effects. We hurt people’s careers. We increase family stress and strife. We also increase disparities, because those who can least afford to miss work may wind up losing their jobs entirely, while those with greater job security, and possibly even paid family leave, may manage to hang on.

Kids also need school. Virtual school is no replacement, especially for those already falling behind. Kids are suffering, both emotionally and academically, and the consequences will be felt for years, if not decades—mostly by those who are already at greater risk of academic and emotional troubles.

Too often, we focus on the relatively small chance of a child becoming severely ill or infecting a vulnerable loved one, while ignoring the certain downsides of keeping kids at home. Moreover, many of these quarantines aren’t preventing much spread. One kid with COVID in a classroom does not necessarily mean other kids in the classroom have COVID—although I wish we had more granular data, what does exist seems to argue that in-school spread is relatively rare. These policies mostly just keep healthy kids at home, with questionable benefits.

Bear in mind that kids remain at low risk in general, and as cases become much less common in the community, no good reason exists to force those at lowest risk to take the most precautions. Additionally, now that the Omicron surge is ending in most parts of the country, U.S. public-health officials and policy makers need to acknowledge that there are “safer” times, and during them people really can live with fewer restrictions. If officials don’t, they will lose their ability to ask people (even kids) to do more when case rates surge once again.

It’s possible that we will all need to be more careful again in the future. Policy makers should be clear about what metrics they’re using to determine when they’ll reimpose stricter safety measures, and the empirical criteria by which those decisions might be made. When we do so, however, we need to make sure to target our interventions where the most danger exists, and where mitigation does the most good. Schools do not clearly qualify in either domain.

Throughout this pandemic, schools have not been major sources of outbreaks. Infections occur in kids, but school may not even be where most of them get infected. Many schools seem to have suffered more from danger in their surrounding communities than they have been a source of danger to those communities. Swallowing the measures schools impose on children would be easier if cities and states were asking any adults to do the same. But most have not.

Of course, schools may have done well because they have been careful, and we should acknowledge that and continue to be vigilant. Ending quarantine policies for all children could and should be coupled with a test-to-stay strategy, in which kids with a known COVID exposure can continue to go to school as long as they test negative on an at-home antigen test. The fact that many places haven’t already done this at this late date speaks to how little America has prioritized school the past two years. It also speaks to how little the government seems willing to do to keep schools open and functioning.

Kids shouldn’t have to stay home when they don’t have COVID. And their parents shouldn’t have to miss work to take care of them. These things have costs. Kids, and their parents, have paid enough.