Before they announced on Wednesday that schools will be closed for the remainder of the academic year, Gov. Larry Hogan and State Superintendent Karen Salmon had taken an admirably cautious approach to school closures. Unlike neighboring states that abruptly shuttered their schools weeks ago, Maryland opted for short-term closures that could be re-evaluated as new evidence comes in.
That evidence is now here, and it suggests an important lesson: Schools are not likely to be major spreaders of COVID-19. Refusing to reopen schools is a serious mistake.
It’s hardly necessary to detail the hardships that accompany a school closure. From the loss of classroom learning, to the social isolation of children, to the scrambling for new child care arrangements, school closures have been one of the most painful aspects of the lockdown.
Nevertheless, parents may fear that reopening could be even worse. After all, wouldn’t our children be at significant risk of hospitalization or even death? The data say no. The rate of school-age Marylanders who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 is less than one in 100,000, compared to 195 in 100,000 among the elderly. Moreover, out of the 1,338 Marylanders who have died from the virus as of May 6, exactly zero have been under the age of 20. No one knows exactly why the virus tends to spare children, but it’s a pattern found all over the world.
Perhaps students could still spread the virus to their teachers and to their older family members. This concern gained some traction recently when a group of German researchers found that viral loads among infected children were about the same as among infected adults. However, children are not usually the source of new infections. One study profiled a symptomatic nine-year-old who tested positive for COVID-19 but did not infect any of 112 classmates and teachers. Perhaps that child’s case is an outlier, but the evidence “consistently demonstrates reduced infection and infectivity of children in the transmission chain,” according to The Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health in the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, although the research is preliminary, school closures have fared poorly in studies comparing the relative effectiveness of lockdown strategies. “Currently, the evidence to support national closure of schools to combat COVID-19 is very weak,” according to a recent review in The Lancet, which went on to note that “school closures could have relatively small effects” given the characteristics of COVID-19.
Readers may balk at all of the qualifiers required in summarizing the evidence — likely, preliminary, usually, etc. The research is admittedly not dispositive, and there remains some risk involved in reopening the schools. But good public policy is never made by attempting to eliminate all risk. Risk is not something to fear but rather something to weigh — in this case, to weigh against the benefits of children receiving a proper education.
When we give in to fear, it can overwhelm our normal sense of perspective. There has always been some chance that children will catch an awful disease when they socialize with other people. According to the CDC, 188 children died of the ordinary flu two winters ago. Parents did not respond by pulling their kids out of school en masse. Similarly, nearly 40,000 people died in roadway accidents last year, but no one has proposed lowering the speed limit on I-95 to 25 miles per hour.
There are, of course, some reasonable steps that schools can take to reduce risk. Avoiding school assemblies, eating lunch in the classroom or outside, and refraining from contact sports may help reduce viral spread while having a minimal impact on learning. In addition, although an analysis of census data indicates that over 90% of Maryland students do not live with an elderly relative, those that do could have the option of continuing online learning rather than coming to school. Finally, since susceptibility to the virus varies with age, elementary schools and high schools would probably need to have different sets of restrictions.
Perhaps it was always unrealistic to imagine that all stakeholders could have come together to support a reopening, or to imagine that political leaders and members of the media would explain the costs and benefits in a fair, dispassionate manner. But had we done that, we could have given Maryland students a full month of in-classroom education that children in less-prudent states had already lost.
Jason Richwine (email@example.com) is a public policy analyst and a contributing writer for National Review. He lives in Calvert County with his two school-age children.