A surprising endorsement of Donald Trump’s position — albeit a careful one — from the man whom the media has painted as the president’s COVID-19 nemesis. In an interview with the Washington Post, NIAID chief Dr. Anthony Fauci insists that schools can safely reopen in the fall, and should, as long as local conditions allow. That might mean a pause in some instances, outdoor settings in others, but the need to reopen overall outweighs the risks that the pandemic present in most cases:
“The default principle should be to try as best you can to get the children back to school,” Fauci told us. “The big, however, and qualifier in there is that you have to have a degree of flexibility. The flexibility means if you look at the map of our country, we are not unidimensional with regard to the level of infection.”
“The bottom line is everybody should try within the context of the level of infection that you have to get the kids back to school, but the primary consideration … should be the safety, health and the welfare of the children, as well as the teachers and the potential secondary effects on parents and family members,” he added. …
“I’ve spoken to superintendents and principals, and recommend if possible, outdoors, better than indoors. If possible, keep the classrooms well ventilated with the windows open if possible, wearing a mask, physical separation, desks that are put further apart, if you could possibly, physically do that,” Fauci said.
That’s quite a position, considering that media outlets have been heaping derision on Trump for insisting on school reopenings. Of course, Trump has mangled some of those arguments, insisting that children are “almost immune,” which is not the case. Even if COVID-19 produces much fewer acute cases in children, they still get it and could still pass it to adults. That’s the not-inconsiderable concern of teachers and of older household members whose risks will go up, at least in some measure, when children return to school.
However, Fauci is pointing out here that other health risks have to get considered, too. The welfare of children isn’t entirely about COVID-19 risk, but also the detrimental effects of isolation, loneliness, and the lack of educational activity for a long period of time. At least one policymaker has followed Fauci’s advice on this point, and it’s no MAGA-cheering governor either:
Schools across New York can reopen for in-person instruction this fall, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday, solidifying New York’s status as one of the few states in America that has a virus transmission rate low enough to forge ahead with reopening plans.
Just a few months after New York became a global epicenter of the pandemic, the governor opened the door for millions of students across the state to return to classrooms, even as most public school students in the country will start the school year remotely. …
Under the governor’s announcement, schools can decide to open as long as they are in a region where the average rate of positive coronavirus tests is below 5 percent, a threshold recommended by the World Health Organization to begin general reopening that has recently been adopted by some school districts.
Most of the state, including New York City, has maintained a positivity rate of about 1 percent. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said schools can only open here if the positivity rate is below 3 percent.
That will make Trump happier, as it should boost the economic output from New York starting in the fall. That depends in large part how many parents choose to send their children back to school, as well as whether teachers unions cooperate with the state on reopening. This makes more sense, however, than Bill de Blasio’s earlier idea to open mass child-care facilities in place of schools, which made no sense at all from either an epidemiological or educational point of view.
Fauci has another piece of advice, too. While refusing to weigh in on the merits and demerits of mass mail-in voting, Fauci says in-person voting should be at least as safe as grocery shopping:
When asked whether mail-in voting is safer during the pandemic, Fauci declined to answer “because that almost certainly is going to be used as a soundbite.”
Fauci said Americans could go to voting booths in November if they’re careful, and recommended polling locations operate like grocery stores and shops.
“I don’t see any reason why, if people maintain that type of physical distancing, wearing a mask and washing hands — why you cannot, at least where I vote, go to a place and vote,” Fauci said.
Here too there are other considerations in play, namely the political health of the nation. Mass mail-in voting has high failure rates — in NYC, it was over 20% — and using it for a presidential election practically guarantees massive confusion and lack of credibility for the results. It’s far too late to build reliable systems and inform voters of the proper processes in which to use them for a November election, and the collapse of a national election in the face of constitutional deadlines could create massive amounts of unrest that could kill as many people as the virus.
States and voters will need to suck it up and vote in person, just as schools will have to do the same at some point. We shut down to allow ourselves to catch back up on resources to deal with a long-term pandemic At some point, we have to figure out how to live with it.