How to get students back in school
There are two obvious ways to reopen schools. One is to take precautions like mask wearing that minimize the risk of outbreaks inside school buildings. The other is to vaccinate the country’s teachers as quickly as possible.
Both strategies now appear to be feasible — and yet neither is happening in many places.
Instead, about half of K-12 students are still not spending any time in classrooms. The rates of school closures are highest in Maryland, New Mexico, California and Oregon, according to Burbio. Experts say that the extended absences are causing large learning problems, especially for lower-income students.
Today’s newsletter looks at how American children can quickly and safely get back to school.
There are enough vaccine doses
The country now has enough vaccine doses to move teachers to the front of the line without substantially delaying vaccinations for everyone else.
Nationwide, about 6.5 million people work inside a K-12 school. It’s a substantially smaller group than the 21 million health care workers, many of whom were in the first group of Americans to become eligible for vaccines.
As a point of reference, Moderna and Pfizer have delivered an average of more than one million new doses to the federal government every day this month. That daily number is on track to exceed three million next month. Immediately vaccinating every school employee would push back everybody else’s vaccine by a few days at most.
A few states have already prioritized teachers, with Kentucky apparently the furthest along, according to Education Week. It has finished administering the first dose to the bulk of K-12 staff who want one. “This is going to help us safely get our kids back in school faster than just about any other state,” Gov. Andy Beshear said, “and it’s going to allow us to do it without risking the health of those that come in to serve those children.”'
Schools have reopened safely
Even before teachers are fully vaccinated — a process which can take more than a month after the first shot — many schools have shown how to reopen.
It involves “masking, social distancing, hand-washing, adequate ventilation and contact tracing,” as Susan Dominus wrote (in a fascinating Times Magazine story on how Rhode Island mostly kept its schools open). It also involves setting up virtual alternatives for some students and staff members who want them. When schools have followed this approach, it has typically worked, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others.
In one of the most rigorous studies, a group at Tulane University looked at hospitalizations (a more reliable measure than positive tests) before and after school reopenings. The results suggest that at least 75 percent of U.S. communities now have Covid well enough under control to reopen schools without sparking new outbreaks, including many places where schools remain closed.
The evidence is murkier for places with the worst current outbreaks, like much of the Carolinas. And some schools do seem to have reopened unsafely, including a Georgia district that is the subject of a new C.D.C. case study.
Still, Douglas Harris, the Tulane economist who runs the research group, told me, “All the studies are suggesting we can do this, if we put our minds to it.” He added: “We can’t do school the old way, but we can do better than this.”
A final note: I have been writing lately about the costs of the overly negative message that many people are spreading about the vaccines, even though the vaccines virtually eliminate severe forms of Covid. Schools are another place where you can see those costs — in Oregon.
Like Kentucky, Oregon has made it a priority to vaccinate teachers. But some teachers unions there have expressed skepticism about reopening even after teachers are vaccinated, as my colleague Shawn Hubler has written.