By Chap Petersen and Babur Lateef
Nearly two years into the pandemic, we must accept COVID-19 as a long-term reality. The curve may never flatten. Life goes on.
Closing schools in March 2020 — and keeping them closed for a year — was a decision based on fear, not science. Thankfully, some Virginia school districts, such as Prince William County, did open in fall 2020, thus lessening the most negative impacts on learning and student mental health.
A year ago, I stated on the Virginia Senate floor that the death of a 99-year-old should not make us close schools for a 9-year-old. The criticism was fierce, but the point was real. Our children should not be the designated losers in every COVID-19 strategy.
Early last year, the Virginia General Assembly passed, and Gov. Ralph Northam signed, Senate Bill 1303, which mandated in-person learning as of July 1. As part of the final compromise, school boards were required to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance “to the maximum extent practicable” in bringing students back for in-person learning.
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The “re-opening” of schools last fall thus was accompanied by a wave of new rules — such as mandatory masks and quarantining — that continued to treat our young people as responsible for spreading COVID-19. Now the omicron variant has arrived and there is a new wave of infections, albeit with marginal consequences for the young and vaccinated.
It’s time to figure out the endgame.
First, let’s set achievable goals in controlling the virus. The Biden administration itself has recognized the futility of “Zero COVID ” and the corresponding need to focus on meaningful metrics like serious illnesses caused by COVID-19, not the endlessly rising numbers of “cases.” It’s time to focus on actual harm, not raw statistics.
Second, we must learn from others, including those who may not share our ideology. Federal and state guidelines on schools have evolved too slowly on COVID mitigation and with a bias toward self-affirmation. Public health guidelines should be flexible and take into account outcomes from all states, including those like Texas and Florida that have resisted mitigation measures like mandatory masking.
Third, the safest place for students is in class. It is not feasible, nor is it necessary, to quarantine asymptomatic students exposed to COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. Today, federal and state policy effectively quarantines students for two weeks after a diagnosis or exposure, even if they are asymptomatic. That policy does not protect anybody but rather isolates and shames a young person for no reason. It must end.
Further, the CDC recently reduced quarantine periods for health care workers exposed to COVID-19, which means quarantine is the shortest for those at highest risk (doctors and nurses) and longest for those at the least risk (students). That makes no sense.
Final point: COVID-19 restrictions will not last forever. There must be an agreed exit strategy or school boards will have to create one on their own.
In the new year, governors and legislatures must develop achievable “off-ramps” for the COVID-19 protocols, based on sound scientific principles. For masks, it will require a set of metrics that will allow school boards to act based on empirical health outcomes, not political pressure from pro-mask or anti-mask forces. And the default option should be normalcy unless there is a specific showing of harm to the students at issue.
Finally, school closures should never again be on the table as a policy option.
Let’s help our students re-engage, recover and accelerate their learning after two years of chaos. It’s what they deserve. Let’s make 2022 normal again.