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As of this writing, schools are closed in forty-one of the United States and in many countries in Europe and the Middle East. Hundreds of millions of children are out of school, and it is unclear when they will go back, when they should go back, and what will happen in terms of COVID-19 when they do go back. Social distancing has been shown to mitigate the spread of this and other pathogens, so it is understandable that governments have moved to prevent school kids from congregating. And yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not clear that closing schools is the best course of action–even when there is community spread of the virus.
School closings helped abate the pandemic of Spanish flu in 1918, but kids are known to get really sick from the flu. And they are known to not get really sick from this coronavirus. So although it is natural that we look back for guidance, this is not a perfect comparison.
The point of social distancing right now is not to prevent the virus from spreading; it is far too late for that. Rather, it is to slow the speed at which it is spread. This way, hospitals will (hopefully) not get inundated with the sickest patients all at once, but over a longer period of time, so that their limited resources will not be overwhelmed.
Closing schools may not help to achieve this end. When kids stay home from school, parents often also have to stay home from school. Some parents can work from home, which can promote more social distancing. But many cannot. And when parents need babysitters, either to get to work or for other reasons, many call their own parents–the over-sixty-year-old grandparents who are most at risk of getting extremely sick with COVID-19. Protecting that older population is essential right now, and extra time with their grandchildren is putting them directly in harm’s way. Many parents work in health care, and we need them at their posts in hospitals right now–not home caring for their kids. Still other parents may be forgoing a paycheck and putting their jobs at risk if they are stuck at home. The caregivers they employ thus also lose their jobs.
Moreover, when kids are at school, they are supervised and safe. With lots of spare time at home–especially as the weather warms, and when they are forbidden to spend time with friends because of social distancing guidelines–they are wont to get into trouble. Online learning is nice, but many children don’t have access to it. And far too many kids in this country rely on school get fed at school, and will go hungry without those meals.
Like all therapeutics, public health measures–including widespread school closures–can have side effects that must be considered. The benefits of closing schools right now are unproven, and there is a chance that they are not worth the high costs.