What a difference a month makes! In mid-May, Dr. Anthony Fauci cast cold water on the idea of reopening schools in the fall, at least in terms of having a vaccine or effective therapy in place. While he didn’t rule out reopening without a vaccine, Fauci warned that it would require a lot of testing and mitigation in place before anyone could think about reopening schools.
Now it appears that Fauci has shifted to a stance of assuming the reopening of schools. In a conversation with CNN last night, Fauci still warned that reopening is contingent on having testing and mitigation in place, but that safety concerns on reopening might be “a bit of a reach”:
In a phone interview with CNN Wednesday, Fauci noted that children tend to have milder symptoms or even no symptoms when they are infected with Covid-19.
What’s not yet clear is whether children get infected as frequently as adults, and whether they often pass the infection on to others. Ultimately, he said, the decision to reopen schools needs to be predicated on the level of infection in each community. …
“When you talk about children going back to school and their safety, it really depends on the level of viral activity, and the particular area that you’re talking about. What happens all too often, understandably, but sometimes misleadingly, is that we talk about the country as a whole in a unidimensional way.”
Fauci seemed to think that keeping schools closed in general was not necessary.
“Children can get infected, so, yes, so you’ve got to be careful,” Fauci said. “You got to be careful for them and you got to be careful that they may not spread it. Now, to make an extrapolation that you shouldn’t open schools, I think is a bit of a reach.”
What’s changed since May 12? For one thing, a lot more reopening has taken place, and without any dramatic rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. So far those openings have been mostly limited to venues where social-distancing protocols are easier to impose. Some retail businesses, especially personal-services businesses, still await reopening. So too do the kind of room-density activities that are similar to schools; even the businesses that are reopening are doing so on a capacity-limited basis, except for “essential” businesses such as food and critical-need establishments.
Thus we do have a baseline for more optimism than we had on May 12. Another factor, though, is the need to get children back out of the house so parents can go back to work. This conversation took place before today’s blockbuster jobs report, but the question of schools has hung over all of the economic planning. Too many households are either two-income families or only have one parent to keep schools closed and expect the economy to recover. If the risk to children is small and the risk of an outbreak from children manageable, then schools should reopen unless an outbreak occurs — and then should get shut down only as long as necessary to manage it.
In his way, Fauci might have created the most significant economic news this week apart from the jobs report. Despite all of the reopening activity, the rebound in actual growth might otherwise wait for a good long while, but the incentives for speeding that up don’t just apply to the private sector:
The U.S. economy’s steep slide appears to be leveling off amid signs that layoffs are easing, travel is modestly picking up, and Americans are beginning to eat out again, but a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is still a long way off, with economic activity at deeply depressed levels. …
Mortgage applications have surged in recent weeks amid record-low interest rates. Consumption of oil and petroleum products is up. The number of travelers at airports, as measured by the Transportation Security Administration’s precheck numbers, has begun increasing in recent weeks. Even restaurant reservations have inched up. …
Cheered on by President Trump, some states have lifted some of their most severe restrictions in recent weeks, more businesses have reopened — at least partially — and brought back workers. But there is still no sense of when commerce will resume at the scale seen late last year. Until there’s a widely available vaccine against the novel coronavirus, the economy is likely to continue struggling at a low rate. And public health officials continue to warn of a second wave of infections in the fall or winter, which could bring on another round of shutdowns.
For now, the U.S. economy is in limbo, with many companies operating at half capacity and a big question mark about how long firms can survive that way. Idled workers aren’t sure when they will be called back, so they are hoarding cash. State and local budgets have been decimated, which is likely to trigger more layoffs later this year.
That’s really going to be the driving force for reopening the schools. State and local governments need the revenue from their tax base, and the only way to get it is to get the kids out of the house. So it won’t just be Trump “cheering” on reopening that forces this issue, but also the entities who run the schools as well.
Fauci’s statement mainly just blesses the inevitable. And that’s not a bad thing, either.