The debate over Covid-19 school closures can sometimes seem to be settled. There is now a consensus that children learned much less than usual — and that their mental health suffered — when schools were shut for months in 2020 and 2021. This consensus helps explain why very few school districts fully closed during the Omicron surge.
But Covid-related school shutdowns did not really end during Omicron. They instead became more subtle, often involving individual schools, classrooms or groups of students, rather than entire districts.
My colleagues at The Upshot recently conducted a poll, in collaboration with the survey firm Dynata, of almost 150,000 parents around the country. The results reveal much more lost school time during the Omicron wave than many people understood.
I was genuinely surprised by the numbers: In January, more than half of American children missed at least three days of school. About 25 percent missed more than a week, while 14 percent of students missed nine or more days. For tens of millions of American children last month, school wasn’t anywhere close to normal.
The data, as my colleagues Claire Cain Miller and Margot Sanger-Katz write, “demonstrates the degree to which classroom closures have upended children’s education and parents’ routines, even two years into the pandemic. Five days of in-person school each week used to be virtually guaranteed. Some parents are now wondering if they’ll get that level of certainty again.”
These quiet closures have large costs. Even brief school disruptions can cause students to fall behind, research has found, with the effects largest among boys and children from low-income families, Claire and Margot note. “Routine is really important for young children’s sense of stability,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, a Duke University professor who specializes in psychology and neuroscience.
The disruptions also create problems for parents, especially working-class parents who cannot do their jobs remotely as easily as many white-collar professionals can. Noelle Rodriguez, a hair stylist in Fresno, Calif., moved her salon to her house, installing a sink and buying a hair dryer chair, because she assumed her children would not reliably be going to school. Her husband could not watch them, because he is a sheet metal foreman who cannot work from home.
Rodriguez was right to assume school would be disrupted: Her third-grade daughter was home for two weeks at one point, and Rodriguez could not see customers. “I cannot collect unemployment, I don’t get any sick pay, I’m self-employed, so I had zero income during that time,” she said.
The obvious question is whether these partial school shutdowns are doing more good or more harm.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. The Omicron surge led to a sharp increase in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths. If schools had allowed children, teachers and other staff members to go to school while they had Covid — and were contagious — they could have made the toll even worse.
But many districts went further than requiring only contagious people to stay home. Some also told people to stay home if they had been exposed to Covid even if they hadn’t tested positive — or told them to stay home for many days after a positive test, likely beyond the window of infectiousness. These policies sometimes left schools without enough staff to function.
In justifying the policies, school administrations have frequently said that they are acting out of an abundance of caution. It’s not so simple, though. Being abundantly cautious about Covid has other downsides. It can sometimes require a lack of caution in other areas, like children’s educational progress and mental health, as well as their parents’ jobs.
“It means a lot of anxiety, and it’s just not sustainable for the long haul,” said M. Cecilia Bocanegra, a psychotherapist in the Chicago area and mother of three who has been frustrated by the disruptions. (The Upshot’s story recreates the chaotic calendars of a few families.)
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that Bocanegra’s attitude is becoming more common. Most parents told Pew that they wanted districts to give priority to students’ academic progress and emotional well-being when deciding whether to keep schools open. By contrast, in the summer of 2020 — before vaccines were available — most parents instead wanted schools to put a higher priority on minimizing Covid risks.
As has often been the case during the pandemic, there are some partisan differences here. Democratic areas have been quicker on average to disrupt classrooms than Republican areas, the Dynata survey suggests:
Burbio, a research firm that tracks school closures, has found a similar pattern. And the Pew poll found that Democratic parents wanted schools to give similar weight to Covid risks, academic progress and students’ emotional well-being; Republican parents wanted schools to put more weight on academics and mental health than on Covid exposure.
Whatever your views are, I think it’s worth remembering that both approaches have public health benefits and costs.
If schools make reducing Covid cases the top priority, they will probably be able to reduce cases — but will also cause more learning loss and family disruption. The strongest argument for this approach is that it protects unvaccinated, immunocompromised and elderly people while a deadly virus is still causing widespread harm.
If schools make returning to normal the top priority, they will probably reduce learning loss and family disruptions — but will also create more Covid exposure. The strongest argument for this approach is that it protects children and less-affluent families at a time when most severe Covid illness is occurring among unvaccinated people who have voluntarily accepted that risk.
With Omicron receding, this dilemma is becoming easier to resolve: School disruptions have declined in recent weeks. But the dilemma has not disappeared. Many schools are still not functioning normally, and future Covid surges — which would force a new round of hard choices — remain possible.
“We may be moving into a new phase of the pandemic,” Bree Dusseault of the Center on Reinventing Education at Arizona State University, told Claire, “where schools are generally kept open but there are sporadic bursts of disruption to smaller groups of students.”
More on the virus:
New York City will end its mask mandate in schools next week if cases remain low.
THE LATEST NEWS
Finding the perfect word
What’s your go-to starting Wordle word?
Regular players of the daily word puzzle tend to have strong feelings about their opening strategies, Emma Dibdin writes in The Times. Some maximize the number of vowels, as with ADIEU. Others emphasize common consonants, as in NORTH.
Dibdin spoke to Wordle fans about their favorite starters:
Beth Biester, an English teacher in Ohio, says her first word is IRATE, with MOUSY as a fallback.
J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Gerri on “Succession,” likes to switch up her opening word: SUAVE and ATONE are two favorites.
Monica Lewinsky cycles among a few, including HOIST and ARISE.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
The pangram from Saturday’s Spelling Bee was toothpick. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.