Harvard public health experts call for reopening schools and then explain why we should not do that

Harvard public health experts call for reopening schools and then explain why we should not do that
Mother putting mask on her son face to protect themselves from viruses. Shutterstock/ visualdm

On Monday, The Boston Globe published an odd and irresponsible piece titled, "Listen to the science and reopen schools." The op-ed, authored by four professors from the Harvard School of Public Health, ostensibly seeks to get politics out of this discussion, but in doing so the authors distort the existing debate and give those who refuse to "listen to the science" valuable ammunition to use against those who are guided by it.

Here's their lede:

President Trump recently took to Twitter to demand that the country’s schools reopen in the fall. He has framed the conversation as one that pits fear-mongering Democrats opposed to in-person schooling against Republicans committed to reopening the economy. As public health professionals and parents of school-age children, we urge the country: Ignore Trump.

So far, so good. The next ten paragraphs argue that various data show that schools can be reopened relatively safely and why it would be better for children to receive in-person instruction than learning remotely from home.

One could take issue with some of their conclusions in those ten paragraphs for some of the reasons Matt Robison laid out last week but their review of the data is sound. The piece falls apart, however, when it refutes its headline and central thesis in the 12th and 13th paragraphs.

We are not advocating a return to schools as usual. Schools must aggressively implement proven risk reduction strategies. A layered approach should include rapid testing and contact tracing, physical distancing when possible, mask-wearing with breaks built into the day, frequent hand hygiene, and well-ventilated spaces. Districts should consider adding tents and trailers and converting gyms, cafeteria, and libraries to expand learning spaces. Staggering arrival and dismissal times and prohibiting parents from entering schools will limit one of the highest risks — having large numbers of adults in indoor spaces.

A final critical step to reopening schools is to keep community rates of COVID-19 low. Opening schools is safer and more feasible if we hold back on higher-risk reopening activities. State leadership is therefore critical, as school districts can’t control what happens in bars, gyms, large public gatherings (especially of adults), and other high-risk settings. It reflects poorly on our public priorities that even in Massachusetts, where COVID-19 has been taken quite seriously, it remains unclear if our children will be allowed to return to school, even as adults return — without much debate — to far higher-risk locations like gyms and casinos.

This is exactly the discussion that those of us who oppose the Trump regime's push to re-open schools for the fall semester--seeing it as reckless and politically motivated--would love to be having right now. As a country, we would be well-served debating what kind of investments we should be making within schools to protect the health of students, staff and their families, and what kind of restrictions we should be putting on bars, restaurants, gyms and the like, in order to open our schools up safely in the coming months.

That debate may be underway in another timeline--and it certainly has been in other countries--but it is not the one before us in the United States. Trump and his allies have argued that it is necessary for kids to return to school for their own development, that children are far less susceptible to serious illness than adults and that we must send them back to school so their parents can return to work and get the economy going again.

They have not proposed allocating the resources necessary for setting up "rapid testing and contact tracing" programs or "adding tents and trailers and converting gyms, cafeteria, and libraries to expand learning spaces." Most oppose mask mandates. And they have relentlessly pushed to reopen their economies over the warnings of public health experts, which has led to cases spiking out of control in broad swaths of the country. 

Given the reality we face at present, the op-ed is actually a strong argument for following the science and keeping the schools closed this fall--the exact opposite of how the piece was framed. While it's laudable that the authors want to take politics out of the debate, it's misleading to suggest that the push to reopen without adequate preparation isn't motivated by politics.

It's also deeply irresponsible as most casual readers, even those who make it as far as the 12the paragraph, will come away from the piece with the impression that those who routinely dismiss the science in their push to reopen the economy are in fact being guided by it. On Twitter, healthcare writer Jon Walker wrote that arguing that we should reopen schools while "assuming conditions are completely different from what they actually are" is "true public health/policy malpractice."

With the exception of a handful of Republican governors like Ohio's Mike DeWine and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Trump and the GOP have chosen to focus on the politics of the pandemic rather than rise to the challenge of containing this historic public health crisis. Their central strategy from the beginning has been to position themselves as champions of returning to normal, which everyone wants, and to shift blame for the pandemic's social and economic impacts to governors and others who they claim are intent on keeping restrictions in place to hurt Trump's re-election campaign.

The experts who wrote the piece may have been well-intentioned in wanting to start an apolitical conversation about how we might get kids back in school safely, but they ultimately lent the institutional credibility of Harvard University--and the "liberal" Boston Globe--to a reckless campaign to send children back into the classroom contrary to their own scientifically sound recommendations. It's ultimately a gift to the anti-science right.

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