Choice: Schools or bars?

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — President Donald Trump insists that schools reopen this fall. Many parents, educators, doctors and economists want the same thing. But getting children back to school safely could mean keeping high-risk spots like bars and gyms closed.

A growing chorus of public health experts is urging federal, state and local officials to reconsider how they are reopening the broader economy, and to prioritize K-12 schools — an effort that will likely require closing some other establishments to help curb the virus spread and give children the best shot at returning to classrooms.

“We need to think about what our priorities are as a society, and some other things may just have to wait,” said Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University. “I think there are hard choices having to be made by decision makers.”

Schools are crucial to communities in ways that go beyond basic learning. They also provide children with friends, food and other support systems. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports children physically returning to classrooms.

Schools are also a key part of getting the economy going, said David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research.

“It’s what allows so many adults, especially people without much means, to get back to work,” Rothschild said. “There’s this huge downstream effect in the short run of getting people back into school, which you may not be able to say in the same sort of way for bars and restaurants.”

In other virus-related developments:

o The total number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has passed 3 million, meaning nearly 1 in every 100 people has been confirmed as infected.

o Asian and European officials pleaded with citizens to respect modest precautions as several countries saw their outbreaks accelerate or sought to prevent new infections Following two nights of anti-lockdown protests in Serbia, authorities banned mass gatherings in the capital of Belgrade amid an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

If a U.S. community has a high level of infection, public health experts say reopening classrooms will be risky, even if schools try to require masks and follow social distancing guidelines.

Hundreds of children and staff have been infected in COVID-19 outbreaks tied to graduation ceremonies and summer camps, including in Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, New York and Florida. Organizers of at least one of the camps said they were following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s why it’s so important, experts say, to consider the wider community and not think of schools as closed systems, unaffected by what the virus is doing outside their walls.

Children are less likely to become seriously ill than adults, and there’s not much evidence that children are driving transmission, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Testing Insights Initiative. Still, there is a risk they could transmit the virus to others, including teachers or vulnerable people they live with.

“That is a reason to think about how to improve safety and to reduce the risk in school environments,” Nuzzo said. “Those measures and the move to reopen schools should proceed before the higher risk environments” like bars, restaurants, gyms and other indoor spaces “where adults are packed together and they have a hard time social distancing.”

If transmission can be reduced in the wider community, she said, it will make it safer for schools to reconvene.

“We should be prioritizing the reopening of those public spaces that have known benefits and low risks,” Nuzzo said. “And we think that schools are one of those.”


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