Indeed, the evidence suggests that schools and classrooms have been relatively Covid-safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for school safety include universal masking for children over the age of two and regular testing in the classroom, including test-to-stay, which allows children who test negative after exposure to stay in the classroom. One study of 90,000 students and teachers where rigorous containment protocols, including universal masking, were followed, in North Carolina, found that transmission in schools was vastly lower than in the community. Another study of test-to-stay policies for children who were exposed through a mask preserved an additional 8,152 in-school learning days for students in Lake County, Illinois. Indeed, with rigorous masking and testing, school can be safe.
All of this evidence, of course, comes from before the omicron surge. Omicron has changed the calculus in two ways. First, it’s far more transmissible than the previous variants that were spreading while the available evidence was being collected. It’s better at finding the seams between our Covid prevention efforts, kind of like the way bitter cold seems to penetrate even your warmest winter coat. That just stresses the need for abundant quality masks and testing. To make matters worse, mass transmission of omicron has put a crunch on the availability of those very things. Indeed, the standoff between the Chicago Public Schools and its teachers’ union resolved largely over testing guarantees. Across the country, school districts are facing similar challenges.
The second issue is that omicron spreads so rapidly at any given time that 10 to 15 percent of teachers across school districts are reporting ill. In lower-income communities, the ratio of students to each staff member is already woefully high. This makes it far worse. Add that to the burden of administrating contact tracing and testing—so critical for test-to-stay to work—and you have a wicked challenge indeed. So while it’s easy to frame this debate as a simple conflict between teachers and parents, it’s actually more about our society’s commitment to keeping kids in schools in the first place.
During her testimony in front of the Senate on Tuesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, “Schools should be the first places to open and the last places to close.” Yes, of course. But what are we doing to make that possible? The fact that there’s a run on testing two years into this pandemic is bad enough. But what’s even more unconscionable is that there hasn’t been a concerted effort to protect enough of our supply of everything from masks to tests for schools around the country.