In September 2020, I knew lots of kids who went back to school full-time. And others who didn’t return to a normal, in-person schedule until April 2021.
Some schools allowed parents to bring kids into classrooms. Others prohibited it. Weekly testing was required at some schools, but not all.
Which is pretty much how the pandemic has been for parents and kids: filled with uncertainty and unpredictability.
Even now, after two and a half years, rules around preschool and school feel like a random pastiche that varies wildly from town to town and school to school. Is quarantine required if you’re exposed to COVID? Do you need to test? Can extracurriculars proceed normally?
(The state has issued guidelines — you don’t need to quarantine; you don’t need to test if you’re asymptomatic; extracurriculars can proceed as usual. But many schools institute their own, stricter set of rules, as they have since 2020.)
Which is why it’s worth asking now — before we’re caught in a whirlwind of infection next fall or winter — what the 2022-2023 school year will look like.
Will parents be unable to enter school buildings? Will masks come back? And how should we think about this problem over the long-term, for the next two, three, four years?
Joshua Goodman, a professor of economics and education at Boston University, thought that after nearly two years of hefty COVID restrictions in schools, this spring would bring relief. He says he was “really excited — and my kids were really excited — when Cambridge Public Schools lifted its mask mandate.”
Goodman says he told his kids: “Oh! This is a sign that we’re going to go back to a world in which we can go drop you off in your classroom, or there will be school concerts or plays that we can attend. And it turns out that I was almost entirely wrong about this.”
Goodman has spent a lot of time studying the effects of school closures, and he points out that “other than actual hospitals, schools are the only place in our world now where there are these intense restrictions. That just seems crazy to me, because schools are one of the few places where it really matters to let families be in and involved.”
Maya Sen, a professor of public policy at Harvard, got COVID in the spring. Her daughter, she says, “was testing negative every day, and the safest place to be was not around me.” But the daycare rules precluded children with household exposure from coming in, even if they tested negative.
“Parents with children under five are still stuck in this time loop of spring 2020,” says Sen, though she believes that child care providers are doing their best, trying to make sure that COVID doesn’t spread through their facilities.
In the beginning, she says, when things shut down, “it felt like everyone was on the same page about it, especially in places like Cambridge.” But now “some parts of society are moving forward and other parts are not.”
Sen — who also runs Harvard’s Stone Program in Wealth Distribution, Inequality, and Social Policy — points out that even early on, we began to witness a divergence between the haves and have-nots. “We saw this happening in real time. Higher-income, more affluent parents were opting to send their kids to schools that were open. Low-income and racial minority groups were not doing that.”
She questions whether we are still “prioritiz[ing] public health at the expense of learning for kids... As best as I can tell, there are policies in place that don’t seem super well supported by the rapidly evolving science.”
She says she spoke recently with a parent who left her job because she simply “couldn’t handle the irregularity of childcare.”
Sen acknowledges that she’s lucky because she has a job with a certain level of flexibility. But for parents who drive buses or work in restaurants, having a child who’s quarantined for several weeks a year may be an impossible situation to grapple with. You can’t leave kids home alone, and you may not have the flexibility to tell your employer — with no notice — that you can’t come in that week.
David Rubin, the director of PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, believes we should follow a different script from the one that more cautious schools have been following for the last two and a half years.
Rubin thinks “we’re going to have a difficult winter again next year,” though he hopes it will be better than last winter. Still, he says, “my hope would be that if we continue in the current direction, that as long as the child is without symptoms... that child can attend school.”
He notes that, “if you look back at traditional pediatric advice — and I’ve been giving this in my office for over 25 years — you return to daycare or school when you’ve been without a fever for at least 24 hours... that’s converging with traditional flu advice at this point. And that’s what we’re going to tell families to do this year.”
Treating COVID like other seasonal viruses may not be a revolutionary argument in much of the country. But for many communities in the Northeast, it would mark a truly radical shift.
Most significantly, it would mean that no one is quarantined for exposure to COVID.
Goodman argues that the downsides of keeping kids out of school for exposure are too high. Missing school, he believes, “never entered the calculations in the first, roughly, year of the pandemic, and it turns out that was a major error. You ended up with all these mental health problems, in part because I think the public health guidance didn’t account for those consequences of the other steps it was recommending.”
Rubin sees the mental health consequences in his hospital.
We have, he says, an “emergency.” Mental health issues among young people were a problem before COVID, but researchers have found that time out of school during the pandemic likely intensified those problems, especially for lower-income children. “And it has continued to accelerate through the spring here. We’ve had just a tremendous burden of mental health illness. So... as we work with the schools now, we’re trying to pivot away from COVID and spending more time developing systems of care around mental health needs.”
The power, though, to decide how to deal with COVID is not solely in the hands of schools. Public health departments often hold the cards. And, as we head into the fourth school year affected by COVID, various states will likely make divergent decisions about what’s in the public’s best interest.
“Some areas will not adopt quarantine,” Rubin says. “But I think that there will be areas, particularly in the Northeast, maybe the West Coast, that are still locked into quarantine as a matter of policy. And that’s going to force schools... to try to keep a lid on it, if the numbers get real high.”
Goodman argues that we should be trying to maximize the quality, in-person time that kids and teachers spend together. There’s been a lot of coverage of staggering learning losses, largely stemming from remote schooling — losses that desperately need to be made up.
Since the spring of 2020, disengagement from public schools has skyrocketed. Across the country, more than a million kids left their local schools. In Massachusetts, 37,000 students disappeared during the 2020-2021 school year (and did not seem to return the following year); Boston’s enrollment now sits at a multi-decade low.
But Goodman notes that leaving is only the most extreme form of disengagement. Kids can stop caring about school, or pare back their attendance. And parents can become untethered from a community where they once belonged.
At his older child’s school, parent-teacher conferences are now held virtually. “I don’t mind that there’s a Zoom option, but if I say to them: ‘We’d like to come in and meet you,’ they will say no... We feel deeply disconnected from our kid’s school as a result of that.”
He says he doesn’t know what it will take to change the status quo. “I keep assuming that there’s going to be some moment — like this fall — when we’ll just revert to normal. But I think it’ll take some kind of proactive action by local politicians or something.”
The question for cities and towns, schools, and public health departments, is how kids’ lives should now be affected by an indefinitely circulating virus. At what point do we pull kids and their families away from normalcy? And at what point should they be allowed to return?
Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.