It’s time to get back to school.
Tens of thousands of Massachusetts students have been learning in isolation for the better part of a year now.
They’ve spent far too much time on screens or, in some cases, not nearly enough — struggling to log in to remote schooling on a regular basis because of faulty Internet connections or mounting family responsibilities.
Many of the most vulnerable students have fallen behind academically, and the pandemic is taking a toll on young people’s mental health. Local pediatricians say they’ve seen a sharp jump in anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. And Boston Children’s Hospital reported a 40 percent surge in admissions for youth having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide in a four-month period in 2020 compared to the same stretch a year before.
Then there are the less obvious, but no less serious, impacts. Shutdowns have made it harder for children to access in-school services many relied on, from school lunches to counselors.
So Governor Charlie Baker got it right when he unveiled a plan this week to force local school districts to return to in-person, five-day-a-week learning for elementary school students starting in April.
If anything, he should have moved earlier.
We have long known that children are far less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults. And there has been robust evidence, since the fall, that schools taking reasonable precautions do not play a significant role in the spread of the coronavirus.
Britain and the Netherlands, which kept schools open in the early phases of the pandemic, saw limited transmission among young children or from students to their parents. And a study in Spain found that cases dropped in one region three weeks after school opened, held steady in another, and continued to rise at the previous rate in others. “What we found is that the school [being opened] makes absolutely no difference,” researcher Enric Álvarez told NPR in October.
Meanwhile, in the United States, a study of 57,000 child-care workers found that those who worked with children in person were no more likely to contract COVID-19 than those who stayed home. And the early returns from New York City, which made an aggressive play to reopen schools, were promising.
Since then, the evidence that young children are not super-spreaders has only mounted. And the pandemic has lost some of its force nationwide, with coronavirus cases on the decline.
There are some legitimate concerns about older students returning to school. Unlike younger kids, they change classes every period, mixing in the hallways and sitting alongside a larger number of their peers over the course of the day. Little wonder, then, that the Baker administration has been vague about when students in middle and high school will get back to in-person learning.
But parents, who have been dealing with uncertainty at home — and deep disruptions to their work lives — deserve some clarity. Baker administration officials say a plan for older students will be forthcoming in the next few weeks; it can’t come soon enough.
The chief critics of the reopening plan have been teachers unions, which have ratcheted up calls for vaccination of their members before any return to the classroom.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether Massachusetts should be among the roughly half of American states that have started putting shots in teachers’ arms. But the Baker administration’s decision to prioritize older residents is entirely defensible, given the much higher risk of death for older coronavirus victims. And, as long as vaccine supply from the federal government comes through, the Commonwealth appears on course to begin vaccinating teachers before its April target for reopening elementary schools anyhow.
Moreover, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.
The governor has hardly covered himself in glory in his handling of the pandemic. The vaccine rollout started slow. The website that residents use to sign up for appointments has been plagued by crashes and enormous queues. And while Baker has long called on schools to reopen, he waited too long to take decisive action.
Taking that action, though, was undoubtedly the right call. And districts across the state need to gear up. It’s time to get back to school.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.