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Prioritizing the Reopening of Schools

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Meira Levinson and co-authors argue in favor of (safely) reopening elementary schools, for the good of young learners and the country at large.
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As communities and families navigate the complicated issues around reopening schools, Professor Meira Levinson argues in a new piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that children returning to elementary school is essential, not only because of the educational, social, and developmental benefits for kids themselves, but also for the longterm economic and civic health of the country. She wrote the piece with University of St. Andrews' Muge Cevik and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Marc Lipsitch.

We asked Levinson to elaborate on those ideas here.

You argue in the piece that reopening school for all elementary-school-age children should be a top national priority. Why?
Children's well-being depends on their being in a setting that is designed for their care, their active and engaged learning, and their healthy development. Elementary school is a time for students to gain crucial foundational skills in literacy, mathematical reasoning, critical inquiry, social and emotional regulation, and relationship-building. Furthermore, young children cannot engage for long periods of time with remote teachers and peers; they need in-person support from a trusted adult. While some families may be able to supervise and support their children's learning and growth full-time at home, most families and children rely on the pedagogical, developmental, and in-person expertise that trained educators provide.
Given current transmission rates in the United States, is it too late to make it safe? Can you help us understand the ethical considerations around “how safe”?
No, it is not too late for us to change course and lower risk to acceptable levels to open elementary schools in most parts of the United States by late September or early October. Evidence from a wide variety of other countries shows that in about two months, communities that close all nonessential services and reduce or eliminate other voluntary gatherings can cut community transmission rates by 90%. In many communities, particularly in the Northeast, rates are already relatively low or could be brought low enough to reopen elementary schools much sooner than that — if additional resources are also provided to schools now. These include PPE, improved ventilation, access to expanded space for overcrowded schools, and so forth. None of this will reduce the risk to zero, of course, but neither does keeping students home.
What do you think of the trade-offs that we have made as a society, permitting gyms, bars, and indoor dining — or even less-glaring sources of concern, like museums — to proceed, prior to ensuring that schools could open? What do tradeoffs like that say?
It is morally outrageous that we have decided to prioritize adult recreation over children's well-being and access to education — and to prioritize adults' access to gyms and bars over teachers' access to safe work spaces. This is not how a responsible society behaves. The trade-offs we're facing between the safety and well-being of students, teachers, and their families on the one hand, and reopening nonessential services on the other, are not medically or scientifically necessary. They are a political choice that we are making that reveals, frankly, a deep moral corruption in our politics and a collapse of the social contract.
As you look ahead over the next year, do you see any silver linings — or hints that we’ll reset the terms of those tradeoffs?
After the massacre of 20 students and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, most state legislatures and Congress systematically refused to strengthen gun control laws to keep children and school personnel safe. At that point, we revealed that as a society, we prioritized children's and educators' lives less than we prioritized adults' unfettered access to weapons of mass destruction. I fear that we are revealing similar moral abdication now: We prioritize children's and educators' lives less than we prioritize adults' unfettered capacity to spread a virus of mass destruction. I hope that parents and guardians of the 55 million school-age children in the United States will finally find common cause and push for sensible public health controls across the nation that will enable us to beat back this virus and open schools with low level of risk. But frankly, I am not feeling optimistic at the moment.