Joe Biden was elected president on the basis that, unlike the guy he replaced, he would “listen to science” and take the country back to a reality-based approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic. Yet fifty days into his term, the United States continues to exist in an alternate reality when it comes to the virus, something that’s maybe most clear and urgent when it comes to the issue of school reopening.
The Biden administration is currently pushing for most K-12 schools to reopen by his first hundred days, the president recently assuring a young mother and her daughter in front of millions of Americans that children rarely get the virus and can’t spread it to their parents. A number of Democratic governments are already making a start on this, such as California, which approved reopening last week; Massachusetts, which is making all of its schools restart in-person classes over the course of April; and New York City, which is reopening high schools later this month. Places like Oakland and Los Angeles have seen parents protest ongoing closures and attack the teachers unions resisting hasty reopening, with some demanding their government “End Oakland Teacher Supremacy” and insisting that the reluctance to return to the physical classroom “Kills Kids.”
This push has been backed by the US government’s top scientific voices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared in February that in-person schooling is safe under certain conditions, and Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s discredited top infectious disease expert, recently affirmed that Congress’s passage of the $1.9 trillion relief bill means “we would get most of the children back to school in a very reasonably short period of time.” Even Scientific American, so outraged that Trump “rejects evidence and science” it endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in its 175-year history, claimed this month the risk of spread among young kids in school is low.
It’s easy to understand parents’ anger, and the eagerness of officials to end remote teaching. A year of no in-person schooling has thrown many parents’ lives into chaos and staggered kids’ educational progress, while widening racial disparities in education that existed long before the virus.
But the teachers are right. There is mounting evidence that the push to reopen in the United States could not only wind up a public health fiasco, but do profound damage to public trust in government, health officials, and science.
The idea that kids rarely catch or transmit the virus was always dubious. But the emergence of the British variant, the so-called Kent strain that is set to become the dominant version of the virus in the United States by the end of March, has left this widely believed claim outdated and dangerous. In several countries that have now been penetrated by the strain, it has infected children in high numbers and forced school closures.
In the UK, where the strain first emerged, even as the country’s winter lockdown brought down cases overall, there was a surge among elementary school–age kids and younger teens once it was lifted, and a February study found kids aged five to twelve years old had among the highest infection rates earlier that month, even as cases dropped among older age groups. Boris Johnson, the UK’s right-wing prime minister, has now admitted that increased transmission is “inevitable if you open up schools for millions of kids across the country,” even as he plows ahead with school reopening plans.
Meanwhile, in Israel, where cases of the variant began popping up in mid-December, more than fifty thousand children and teens tested positive by the end of January, more than any month in the country’s earlier waves, while the proportion of new daily cases among kids under ten shot up by 23 percent. The country’s health officials have flatly stated that the new variant is hitting young children hard, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — another hard-right leader — to close schools early on. Now one of his top pandemic advisors is explicitly saying the country cannot reach the fabled “herd immunity” until kids under sixteen are vaccinated too.
Of course, it’s possible this was simply the result of the two countries’ aggressive vaccination drives, which have prioritized older adults, and entirely left out kids under sixteen years. (Though that wouldn’t change the fact that kids are clearly still being infected in significant numbers by the new strain).
But this doesn’t explain the situation in Italy, whose own vaccine rollout has lagged, and where the British variant has forced a new round of school closures in highly infected areas. First, one village saw a tenth of its population contract the virus, 60 percent of whom were young kids or babies. Now, cases in Milan’s schools have spiked 33 percent in one week as the strain spread through even nursery schools, while the country has reported more new cases among young people than older, flipping the trend that prevailed earlier in the pandemic. Similarly, in Japan, the British variant led to case clusters at a childcare center and a nursery school.
It’s yet another reminder of how wildly out of step official US attitudes and discourse are on the virus. Though Trump and the GOP are widely and correctly characterized as disdainful of science and out of touch with reality when it comes to the pandemic, the overall center of political gravity in the United States is so untethered to global scientific consensus that its leading liberal voices and even its public health officials are to the right of other countries’ right-wing leaders. And with no alternative narrative being offered, either in the political system or the media, most people naturally assume these are the only possible ways forward.
The fact that a recent study concluded the British strain isn’t causing worse illness in kids than the previous one is cold comfort. Kids are still being hospitalized and dying, and they seem to be increasingly suffering from a rare inflammatory syndrome because of it, leaving a significant fraction of them with kidney injuries and other serious aftereffects. Perhaps some parents would still be willing to roll the dice on their kids’ health if they knew all this. But it’s hard to imagine the vast majority would.
The virus’s spread among and by kids also has implications for all other Americans. US cases sharply dropped as the country came out of winter, but plateaued at a still-alarming level, and experts are warning a combination of new strains and yet another round of premature reopening has left the country on the brink of a fourth wave. The more vaccine-resistant South African strain is also spreading.
Meanwhile, Biden is only promising the United States will have enough vaccines on hand for every adult — which, crucially, is itself distinct from having every adult vaccinated — by the middle of May, after his own deadline for when schools will reopen. So the push to reopen schools could end up not just harming kids, but accelerating the virus’s spread through communities as a whole, causing even more death and illness.
Teachers are right to be careful. Politicians both liberal and conservative, together with — tragically — some public health officials, are pushing a risky course of action out of step with the experience of other parts of the world. Worse, by invoking “science” to do it, they are misleading the parents who stand to lose most if the strain surging through the country does exactly what it’s already done in other countries. The fact that it’s being justified with appeals to social justice is especially perverse, given which communities will be hurt most if the virus starts tearing through American children.
The evidence is clear: Kids do get infected, they do get sick, they do transmit the virus, and schools can be a key source of transmission. If only it were Trump saying the opposite again — then perhaps people might listen.