I’ve half-joked in the past that Leonhardt’s COVID columns are a sort of “bat signal” to the federal public-health bureaucracy that the liberal intelligentsia thinks it’s time for the guidance to change. It wasn’t unusual over the past year for Leonhardt to publish a piece complaining that some rule or another no longer makes sense and for the CDC to update its recommendations days later. The twist with today’s column is that the feds have already grasped that continuing school closures are a disaster for kids, for parents, and for the Democratic Party. It’s the intelligentsia itself that needs persuading, having spent the last 18 months absorbing the lesson that one can never have too many COVID restrictions in the name of safety.
It’s not Fauci and Rochelle Walensky who need convincing this time. It’s local school administrators, teachers unions, and the left-leaning Times readers who are normally inclined to support them.
Read Leonhardt’s column in full. There’s nothing there that you haven’t heard from conservative outlets over the past year but it’s bracing to see it laid out point by point in the beating heart of the liberal media. Learning loss, behavioral problems, mental health crises, even suicide and domestic child abuse: That’s the toll to kids so far as thousands of schools close their doors again due to the Omicron surge, with Chicago’s public school teachers prepare to vote later today to walk out until the city requires testing for all children before sending them back into class. There, as in NYC, an African-American Democratic mayor is pitted against labor with the welfare of children hanging in the balance. Leonhardt’s piece is a righteous attempt to point liberal opinion towards supporting the government over the union this time.
I have long been aware that the pandemic was upending children’s lives. But until I spent time pulling together data and reading reports, I did not understand just how alarming the situation had become…
Severe versions of Covid, including long Covid, are extremely rare in children. For them, the virus resembles a typical flu. Children face more risk from car rides than Covid.
The widespread availability of vaccines since last spring also raises an ethical question: Should children suffer to protect unvaccinated adults — who are voluntarily accepting Covid risk for themselves and increasing everybody else’s risk, too? Right now, the United States is effectively saying yes…
For the past two years … many communities in the U.S. have not really grappled with the trade-off. They have tried to minimize the spread of Covid — a worthy goal absent other factors — rather than minimizing the damage that Covid does to society. They have accepted more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults, often without acknowledging the dilemma or assessing which decisions lead to less overall harm.
Three pernicious forces conspired to bring us to this. One, the most sinister, is the unions prioritizing their members’ health over that of children. Another is the impulse among the risk-averse to mitigate the spread of COVID, which is virtuous when reasonable and weighed against other priorities and vicious when it devolves into a “by any means necessary” tribal credo. And third is sheer public ignorance of the tiny risk to kids, something the feds have done an abysmal job of educating parents about. No doubt even many of the Times’s educated readers were shocked today to learn from Leonhardt that more kids die from car accidents than from COVID. Given the duration of school closures and the rhetorical pressure from experts to vaccinate even the youngest children despite the minuscule risk to them of severe illness, it’s understandable that the average mom or dad might assume that the threat to their kid from the virus is several orders of magnitude greater than it actually is.
There’s one point Leonhardt left out of his column, though. The harm to children from being out of school is also causing serious harm to parents, and not just financial harm by forcing them to scramble to find child care on a moment’s notice. “Atlanta Public Schools, for instance, announced on Saturday that classes would be online for the first week of January, just days after saying that classes would be held in person,” the NYT notes in a story today. Another piece makes it sounds like many parents on the verge of nervous breakdowns from the endless disruption:
“I am screaming inside,” wrote Cathy Nieng, the Chicago mother.
“I cry a lot,” said Juliana Gamble, whose children — ages 2 and 7 — have been in school and day care in Boston for just 11 days in the past eight weeks. “I feel a total loss of control of my life.”…
“My kids were out of school for 14 months. I can’t do this again. It’s put me over the edge,” [one mother] wrote, adding that she supported the school’s mask requirement but opposed the quarantine protocol. “It is incredibly frustrating to see kids in school across the country where families have done nothing to prevent the spread of Covid, and then to live in a community with around 80-90 percent vaccination rate and watch my kids struggle to have a normal school experience.”
One parent couldn’t understand why businesses like restaurants are safe enough to remain open while her child’s school needs to be closed. And some schools that are open continue to follow draconian quarantine policies, like sending everyone home if any student tests positive, which amount to impromptu closures anyway. “It’s chaos,” said the head of the National Parents Union. “The No. 1 thing that parents and families are crying out for is stability.”
It would be nice if this were a pure contest of wills between politicians like Eric Adams and the unions since the political incentives give Democrats every reason to play hardball. But it isn’t. Omicron is so widespread right now that some schools will have difficulty staffing up even if the unions are willing; a huge number of teachers will be out sick because they have COVID while others will be forced to care for family members who do. The good news is that, if the experts are right, the wave from the new variant should be receding by the end of the month. The bad news is that’s another month of disruption for kids smack dab in the middle of the school year.
But let’s look for the silver lining: All three pieces linked in this post were published today by the Times, the most influential paper in the country and one whose liberal credentials are unchallenged. If anything’s going to move liberal groupthink away from maximum precautions for kids and towards sensible restrictions, that’s it.