With weeks to decide how and whether to reopen schools, the CDC has released a broadsheet arguing for reopening schools. It is titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall,” and, though it’s a fact-based argument for the wellbeing of children, it’s also alarming heel-turn after the CDC—the last neutral stopgap between public health and politics—announced that it would not tailor its guidelines to Trump’s school reopening push, which is essentially a cheap bargaining chip during an election season.
The pro-reopening statement comes a few weeks after President Trump threatened to cut school funding if schools didn’t open entirely and ordered the agency to rewrite its recommendations so that they’d be less expensive—i.e., that schools install barriers where social distancing isn’t possible, update their ventilation systems, and avoid meals in cafeterias. The new guidelines make decision-making more optional.
The CDC’s memo walks back the single, loudest warning that has jangled in our brains for what seems like a lifetime: that asymptomatic, low-risk people are believed to be capable of spreading the virus. It ignores all that and argues that children are probably safe:
The best available evidence indicates if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms. Death rates among school-aged children are much lower than among adults.
We know this, but the whole point of quarantining everyone was supposed to be for the higher-risk adults, who go largely unmentioned. The CDC tactfully avoids the inevitability that higher-risk teachers, cafeteria workers, and staff will interact with each other, and that students will come home to parents.
The CDC’s proclamation might appease Trump by presenting a false choice: they don’t say that the risk of a caretaker contracting covid-19 is less important than the risks posed to children, but they imply that it’s the only option. And you can’t argue with the facts they present: the CDC points out that learning loss can be severe over long periods of time, and many low-income students and students with disabilities are less likely to have access to private education and care and more likely to rely on school meals and special ed programs. Some children are vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at home, and, the CDC adds, teachers are reliable reporters. The CDC reminds readers that fewer reports of child abuse during the pandemic have correlated with an epidemic of child abuse victims in ERs. The CDC also admits that remote learning just doesn’t work, and kids need social interaction. They also cite findings that people quarantined are four times likelier to experience post-traumatic stress.
But is it healthy for children if a parent incurs permanent lung damage or dies? That’s not addressed in the statement, which closes with: “Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of our communities, as they provide safe, supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to work.”
It noticeably avoids making politicized calls, like the contentious issue of the number of days a school should open per week. Nor does it acknowledge that teachers are revolting, or that there are other options, like the homeschooling models that legions of both wealthy and low-income families are brainstorming. Those families will go it alone without government funding.
Even the CDC’s own guidance, especially around face masks, makes containing covid-19 look near-impossible in a full-capacity school setting. The CDC acknowledges that it may be hard to keep face masks on very young children, it may be difficult for people with developmental disabilities and breathing problems to wear face masks at all times, it’s hard to wear face masks during sports, people who rely on lipreading will require teachers to use clear masks, face masks (on or off) may create “stigma or bullying,” and, likely most problematically, parents won’t “agree” over the necessity of face masks.
The CDC also offers a general disinfectant, social distancing, hand-washing guidelines, and adds that sick children should stay home.
It’s going to be a mess.