Science says schools are safe, so what’s keeping them closed?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

New research released by federal health experts has added to a growing scientific consensus that schools can safely be opened for in-person instruction without putting children, teachers and the broader community at risk. School-age children, especially young children, face significantly less risk of severe sickness from the virus and there’s “little evidence” that schools contribute meaningfully to community transmission, the researchers said.

This new data bolsters the argument made by President Biden and governors across the country that the harm caused by keeping schools closed outweighs the health risks of bringing students back into the classroom as long as proper mitigation measures — like mask wearing — are followed.

Most schools switched to distance learning last fall during the initial outbreak of the virus. Since then education strategies at the nation’s 130,000 public schools have varied wildly based on state and local policies. Some schools returned to full classroom instruction, some have used a hybrid of in-person and online learning and others have remained entirely remote.

There’s ample evidence that distance learning has been a poor substitute for an in-person education. Many students have fallen behind academically, missed out on essential services and suffered mental health challenges after nearly a year outside the classroom — impacts felt disproportionately by poor children and people of color. School closures are also having an economic impact, with many working parents struggling to meet their professional duties with children at home.

Biden has set the goal of reopening the nation’s schools in his first 100 days in office. But despite mounting evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks, that goal “may not happen,” according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Why there’s debate

For all the heated debate about schools, the main thing keeping them closed is that the country isn’t treating reopening them as a priority, many argue. Schools have only proved to be safe with measures like mask wearing and social distancing in place, but many schools lack the money, staff and facilities needed to enforce those policies. Throughout the pandemic, others argue, lawmakers have consistently prioritized opening businesses — particularly bars and restaurants — that drive up case numbers in the local community, making it difficult for schools to reopen.

Teachers unions have also proved to be an impediment to reopening schools. Plans to resume in-person instruction in the country's three biggest school districts — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — have been on hold because city leadership has been unable to reach a deal with local unions. Some have accused teachers of using their leverage to extract concessions at the expense of children stuck at home. Others say the unions are justified in demanding the proper safety protocols they need to stay safe.

The debate over school reopenings has become deeply politicized and is rife with misinformation, which has made it difficult to have a fair conversation about the risks and benefits of bringing kids back into the classroom, some argue. It’s understandable that some teachers and parents might be hesitant to trust leaders who say schools are safe when the government has bungled so many other elements of its pandemic response, they say.

What’s next

Biden is seeking $130 billion in additional funding to help schools reopen as part of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that's currently being negotiated in Congress. It’s unclear whether that money will be in the final bill if a deal between Democrats and Republicans is ultimately reached.


Schools do not have the funding or resources to open safely

“It is decades of disinvestment in the public education of our most vulnerable students that’s keeping students out of classrooms, not teachers unions or uninformed school boards disregarding the experts.” — Jared C. Nicholson, Boston Globe

The fear that caused widespread lockdowns in the spring still lingers

“There was so little information available and so much fear then that people were hoarding toilet paper, wiping down their groceries with sanitizer and considering drinking bleach as a treatment if they suspected symptoms. We’re wiser now. … But we’re still terrified, and for good reason: Death can’t be undone.” — Tricia Bishop, Baltimore Sun

We’re not doing enough to keep community transmission low

“We ultimately have to choose: bars and gyms or schools and daycares? Choose wisely.” — David M. Perry, CNN

Teachers unions are holding schools hostage

“Parents and community groups in big, Democrat-run cities from New York to Chicago to San Francisco would very much like to reopen the public schools. But parents and community groups in big, Democrat-run cities from New York to Chicago to San Francisco are only incidental inconveniences to the teachers’ unions, who proceed from the assumption — which is far from obviously wrong — that the public schools are run for their benefit.” — Editorial, National Review

Unions are wary of putting their members in harm’s way with the pandemic still raging

“With coronavirus cases surging around the nation, the labor groups are continuing to flex their political muscle, most often pushing for a more conservative approach to getting teachers and kids back in buildings.” — Madeline Will, Education Week

The federal government has abdicated its responsibility to help schools open

“Getting children back in the classroom and helping them recover must be addressed by the federal government with the same urgency and commitment as other disasters. Failure to do so will allow a ‘national emergency’ to become a national disgrace that will haunt millions of children for the rest of their lives.” — School superintendents Richard Carranza, Austin Beutner and Janice Jackson, Washington Post

The government and media have done a bad job communicating the true risks of schools

“Public communication about this disease has been horrendous, and the Trump White House was a fount of nonsense. Meanwhile, some journalists and professionals, in an attempt to fight back against Trump’s disinformation, leaned too heavily into COVID pessimism and clung to outdated fears about secondary spread among young kids. That’s made a lot of people unnecessarily concerned that kids are silent vectors for this disease, and made teachers feel like they were being thrown to the wolves in a country that has failed in just about every pandemic test.” — Derek Thompson, Atlantic

New virus variants and the slow vaccine rollout have elevated risks of opening schools

“Oddly enough, schools are preparing to reopen just as some risks are heightening. While immunizations are rolling out — about as slowly as possible — new strains of the virus are more easily transmittable. That shouldn’t change plans to reopen, but it underscores the need to strictly enforce rules on masIs, social distancing and hand-washing.” — Editorial, Buffalo News

Prioritizing teachers for vaccines will help get schools open

“We need to reverse this catastrophic choice to keep kids at home by ensuring the health and safety of our teachers for in-person education. The best way to do that? Prioritize teachers for the COVID-19 vaccine.” — Jaime Peterson, Oregonian

Lack of comprehensive data makes it hard to come to conclusions about school safety

“How schools open and the safety measures they take are likely to play a role in terms of what happens with COVID-19 cases. Schools can, for example, bring back only some students, require masks and keep desks spaced several feet apart from one another. ... However, we are not able to assess how much these steps might help because we do not have information on safety protocols in individual schools or whether schools are following those protocols.” — Scott A. Imberman, Dan Goldhaber and Katharine O. Strunk, Penn Live

Lawmakers are thinking of their own interests, not the children

“The officials who are continuing to keep children out of schools in defiance of the vast scientific evidence available and the repeated recommendations of public health experts are clearly not closing schools because it is in the best interests of children or parents.” — Justin Haskins and Chris Talgo, Fox News

Politicization of the issue has made both sides less willing to find compromise

“The terrible and mounting toll of the pandemic has caused positions to harden on both sides of the reopening debate. For districts that pledged in the summer or fall to reopen when coronavirus numbers got better, there are many cases where the numbers haven’t cooperated.” — Anya Kamenetz, Sarah Karp and Eda Uzunlar, NPR

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images