As optimism spreads that Omicron is subsiding, one thing must not be forgotten: The debate over in-person schooling had such a narrow frame of reference, the voices left out are at high risk of being ignored again in the next public health crisis.
Much of the commentary in national media represented a zero-sum paradigm of keeping children in school at all costs. The New York Times’s David Leonhardt claimed school closures result in “more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults.” Brown University economics professor Emily Oster is controversial for her use of school data to push in-person schooling, saying, “there will be in some in-school transmission, no matter how careful we are.” Philadelphia pediatrician David Rubin told National Public Radio, “We no longer can tailor our school safety policy to the decisions of those who’ve opted not to get vaccinated.”
These statements are themselves tailored to reflect a privileged world view: of single-family households and nurturing schools. Missing is the view of vulnerable children and multigenerational families living with racial disparities and disabilities. The Biden administration inadvertently made clear how invisible some of these groups are in the rosy race to get back to “normal” when Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had to apologize to disability advocates over an edited version of a television interview that made her seem to say it was “really encouraging news” that most COVID deaths were suffered by people with at least four medical conditions.
As a physician and epidemiologist advising several community and education groups throughout the pandemic, I hope that when the next crisis hits, we start from the point that everyone is suffering. Everyone should have a say as to what a return to “normal” looks like.
We must remember, as Newton ageism scholar Margaret Gullette posits, that a major reason for the nation’s slow initial response to COVID-19 was because it was “only” older people who were dying at first, in nursing homes. In the first half-year of the pandemic, 80 percent of COVID deaths were among people at least 65 years old.
We must remember that in-school learning is no paradise for parents of color, who worry about their children being targeted for suspensions and special education in under-resourced systems, which also happen to have sanitized social studies programs. As one Black parent told The Washington Post last fall in a growing movement of homeschooling by parents of color: “I feel like the school system is setting these kids up for failure, and I don’t want my child being a part of it.”
White “in-school” advocates fail to volunteer that it is safer to send white children to school because the consequences of infections are lessened by better baseline health, less multigenerational family structures, and the greater ability to work from home, compared with the average Black or Latino worker.
White parents do not fear losing their children or orphaning their children in the same way as parents and grandparents of color. For all the talk about children being able to generally weather the virus, Black and Indigenous children are, respectively, 3.5 times and 2.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white children. In a study last month in the journal Pediatrics, Black and Latino children were twice as likely to lose a parent or caregiver to COVID than a white child. Indigenous children were four and a half times more likely than a white child to lose a parent or caregiver.
In this context, it is easy to understand why rational Black and Latino parents consistently are the most reluctant to send their children back to in-person learning in the pandemic. Yet they are often depicted as an ignorant lot that need convincing.
Instead, it is the in-school advocates who need to drop an either/or thinking that reflexively frames remote learning as an unqualified evil. Last year, the Christian Science Monitor featured school districts that found remote learning to have important benefits in getting computers to low-income students, reducing academic losses from in-school suspensions, and offering flexibility in parent-teacher conferences. Lincoln, Neb., Superintendent Steve Joel told the Monitor: “I think we’ve learned how to more individualize and differentiate instruction. I think we’ve always been good at that, but I think we became a lot better at it.”
That should inspire us to get better at this in-school debate. Omicron is subsiding, but the disparities remain. We need to school ourselves as to what safe in-person schooling looks like — for all families.
Dr. Michelle Holmes is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.