We’re more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, but the debate over how to conduct K–12 education in the United States is still far from settled. A few academics have gained prominence as advocates for an immediate return to in-person instruction, claiming that in-person instruction poses minimal, acceptable risks of coronavirus transmission as long as students and teachers wear masks and perhaps the windows are cracked open to improve ventilation. They argue that universal testing, vaccination, and six feet of distance between students are not prerequisites for safely opening school buildings.
This group of experts also accuses teachers and their unions of ignoring “the established science” on coronavirus transmission, as Boston University professor Benjamin Linas put it earlier this week in a Vox op-ed entitled “I’m an epidemiologist and a father. Here’s why I’m losing patience with our teachers’ unions.”
In reality, the scientific evidence on the safety of in-person schooling during this pandemic is mixed. And the availability of resources that can make schools safer map onto existing patterns of racial segregation and disinvestment in public education that predominantly elite researchers pushing for in-person schooling seem happy to ignore, even as teachers in their own upper-middle-class suburban school districts sound the alarm on unsafe working conditions. With this latest attack on teachers’ unions, in-person proponents are not actually promoting “the science” — they’re engaging in racialized class conflict.
Faulty Claims by Reopening Advocates
Let’s evaluate the key scientific claims made by Linas and other reopening advocates. One argument is that the science shows little in-school transmission when everyone is wearing masks. But the research underlying this claim has critical limitations that are almost guaranteed to underestimate risk.
These studies identify infections based only on symptomatic testing that parents report to schools. Since symptomatic testing captures only a small fraction of those who are infected (one study found just 9 percent of infected students reported symptoms), such testing regimens will undercount the true number of infections. Further exacerbating this undercounting, some parents also refuse to report positive tests to schools because they don’t want to trigger quarantines.
In these studies, school administrators are often responsible for determining whether or not the transmission occurred in schools. In most cases, the actual transmission source is unknown. This is because contact tracing is very difficult when infections are widespread in the community.
Administrators also have an incentive to underreport in-school transmission because it absolves them of responsibility. Consequently, the oft-cited contact tracing studies of schools in Wisconsin and North Carolina should be interpreted cautiously: it is quite likely that underreporting of transmission is substantial.
Another claim made by reopening advocates is that six feet of distance between students is unnecessary. For example, Linas writes, “there really is no measurable difference in risk between being 3 feet and 6 feet apart.” However, the review article he cites as support for his claim does not, in fact, support his claim.
Instead, it analyzed findings from thirty-eight studies of coronavirus transmission that largely took place in health care settings — not schools — where N95s and other high-quality masks were usually available. And the researchers indeed found a measurable difference in risk: they reported that an additional 10 percent of infections could be prevented by increasing distancing from three feet to greater than three feet (the review did not specifically look at the effects of six feet).
The added benefits of increased distancing are likely even larger, given the lower-quality masks that many people are wearing in schools. Allowing for six feet of distance also means smaller class sizes; with fewer bodies in the room, it is less likely that anyone present has an active infection. The review that Linas cited did not assess this factor.
Reopening advocates also downplay, or outright ignore, higher-quality natural experiment studies that convincingly link in-person instruction to a rise in COVID-19 cases. For instance, one study found that cases steadily increased by 30 percent among children ages fourteen to seventeen in Florida counties twenty days following their return to in-person instruction. Counties that remained remote saw no such increase.
Florida schools have a mask requirement. But cloth masks are imperfect, and anyone who works in a school building knows that these are not well-controlled environments and that requirements are not always followed. Masks also have to be removed for lunch, which may take place in crowded cafeterias when there are not enough staff members available to supervise classroom-based lunch breaks.
When school buildings are open, parents decide whether to send their children. Many have opted for virtual learning, a particularly common choice among lower-income parents and parents of color. These parents understand that their schools are deprived of the resources needed to mitigate risk and that their household members’ risk of dying of COVID-19 is far higher than that of wealthier whites.
But for teachers and other education workers, there is typically little choice about working in-person rather than from home. Educators with high-risk health conditions may be excused from returning to buildings in some cases, but not in many others. Oftentimes, their household members have high-risk conditions, but this typically does not count as a scenario warranting accommodation from a school. Yet the experts pushing for immediate reopening rarely engage with these issues of power and coercion.
Worker Solidarity in Chicago
Chicago provides an instructive example of how a union can win stronger public health protections, which may also make parents feel safer sending their children to school. Despite assurances from Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson that “You can operate schools safely, there’s a lot of scientific data, that shows that schools are not the vector that we thought they would be,” teachers found the original safety plan inadequate. After tense negotiations that included the threat of a lockout of teachers from their virtual learning platforms, two-thirds of Chicago Teachers Union members voted in favor of an agreement that included commitments to expand testing, improve ventilation, prioritize vaccination for educators, and provide accommodations for high-risk conditions.
Reopening advocates might not have patience for this sort of collective bargaining between workers and management over life-and-death safety conditions, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Teachers and staff, more than anyone else, are fundamentally qualified to accurately assess the safety of their working conditions. And because teachers (unlike many other workers) have strong unions, they have some basic democratic rights to collectively bargain over those conditions.
What Linas expresses as loss of patience with teachers’ unions may actually be frustration that credentials and prestige like his are immaterial in the face of worker solidarity and worker power. This loss of patience might also stem from a lack of political imagination more generally. It only takes a little bit of empathy and political consciousness to reframe this debate as a fight where teachers, parents, and epidemiologists are all on the same side — we are all harmed by the chronic failures of governance that have permitted out-of-control coronavirus transmission.
Experts like Linas could use their media access and their platforms to advocate for a solidaristic solution to bring community transmission below the benchmarks now recommended in new CDC guidance. In fact, models from the COVID-19 Simulator (of which Linas is a principal investigator) indicate that a short shutdown could achieve substantial reductions in community transmission. Lower levels of the virus make everyone safer, and make more activities safer, including in-person instruction.
A return to normal for some at the expense of the health and safety of a wide range of workers, including school personnel, is not an equitable approach. The only way out is through, together, when we can act collectively to protect everyone.