Science

Opinion | Biden Says He’s Pro-Science. Why Is His Schools Plan Based on Fear?

Teachers’ unions opposing or slow-walking reopening are expressing fear of returning to the classroom before (or even after) getting vaccinated. And many parents, too, are afraid of sending children back to school. The unions seem to have influenced the Biden administration’s reopening plan.

But the administration’s guidance, if followed, might close more schools than it would open. The plan says schools should fully open only if community spread is brought down to levels below where most communities are now, with less than 8 percent of tests coming back positive and fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 population. That would preclude most school districts in the country, and it’s more restrictive than the science requires. A study based on data from Washington State and Michigan found that “regardless of the underlying spread,” putting more students in classrooms (up to 75 percent of all students, at least) didn’t cause more spread in the community. Unicef reported, “Children are more likely to get the virus outside of school settings.”

Another part of President Biden’s plan would needlessly keep many kids stuck at home because it recommends six feet of distancing between desks, rather than three. Does six feet reduce the threat of infection more than three feet? Most likely. But assessing threats rationally involves weighing trade-offs, and the benefit of doubling the desk distance isn’t worth the cost.

Demanding six feet between desks instead of three feet can reduce potential class sizes, making in-person schooling impossible in many circumstances. The Lancet published a metastudy over the summer finding that staying one meter (about three feet) from an infected individual reduces risk of infection by 80 percent. The second meter is going to have a much smaller effect.

That’s why experts at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health wrote, “Three feet should be the default distance for schools.”

What are the long-term costs of school closures? We obviously don’t have long-term data from coronavirus closures, but we do have some information from similar experiences in both inner cities and rural Middle America — and it’s not pretty. When community hubs shutter, whether it’s schools, churches, main streets or bowling leagues, the cost of lost community is not merely a feeling of loneliness or some sentimental sadness. There is also a deep alienation, with very measurable consequences that show up in fewer marriages, less employment, more drug abuse and deaths of despair.

Teachers are understandably scared. After all, school kids are not known for avoiding germs and following every rule. But fear is different from science. The science tells us that schools can be opened safely and that kids need in-person school. Mr. Biden said he would let the science speak, and it’s time for him to listen.