The New York Times alleges in a recent report that Trump officials “pressured” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “play down” the risks associated with providing school-age children with in-person education. This, the Times contends, represents a “strikingly political” intervention into the already intrinsically political conduct of setting public policy.
This pressure took many forms. On one occasion, the White House asked the CDC to produce easily digestible visual depictions of data that suggest children and adolescents have a lower risk of both infection and communicating COVID-19. On another, the Trump administration wanted to create a demographic category of 18-years-old and younger to highlight this disparity. The CDC was asked to lean into the “questionable claim” that there are “few reports of children being the primary source of COVID-19 transmission among family members,” and the claim that asymptomatic children are “unlikely to spread the virus.” That request was rejected, though the “gist” of these assertions were included in the preamble to the agency’s guidance on school re-openings. Even the State Department’s Dr. Deborah Birx intervened in the effort to compel the CDC to note that prolonged school closures have a deleterious effect on the mental health of children.
These revelations are presented to Times readers as egregious interference into the technocratic preservation of public health by callously self-interested public officials. It seems of little consequence to those who hold fast to this conclusion that the Trump administration was right.
While some teachers and, to a lesser extent, students have contracted COVID-19 since schools began reopening across the country, a Washington Post investigation concluded that there is little evidence of viral transmission in schools. What’s more, infection rates in American schools have been well below what they are in the communities where those schools are situated.
According to a database maintained by Brown University that tracks COVID-19 infections in schools, a two-week period beginning on August 31 found that “0.23 percent of students had a confirmed or suspected case of the coronavirus. Among teachers, it was 0.49 percent.”
“Looking only at confirmed cases,” the Post continued, “the rates were even lower: 0.078 percent for students and 0.15 percent for teachers.” As John Hopkins University associate professor of pediatrics, Sara Johnson happily conceded, “We’re not seeing schools as crucibles for onward transmission.”
Studies of COVID-19 infections in minors support this conclusion. “Children and adolescents are at much lower risk from symptomatic coronavirus disease,” determined a recent examination of the subject conducted by two British pediatricians and published in Science magazine. While transmissibility among children remains a subject of some debate, that is a function of “the very low numbers of children with symptomatic COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, the study continues, “children and adolescents have been disproportionately affected by lockdown measures, and advocates of child health need to ensure that children’s rights to health and social care, mental health support, and education are protected throughout subsequent pandemic waves.”
The adverse effects of distance learning and school closures on the welfare of American children is illustrated in a heart-rending piece of journalism via ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis. While some of the teachers and administrators operating in largely empty buildings reported feeling “calmer and less stressed,” the same cannot be said for the parents of those children or the children themselves. As early as May, pediatricians such as Dr. Dimitri Christakis observed in a study published in JAMA Pediatrics that enforced social isolation among children corresponds with elevated levels of juvenile depression and anxiety.
The worst effects of lockdown tend to fall neatly along lines demarcating class, as in-person education is readily available to the families of children with the means to pay for it. That disparity is most acutely felt by minorities. “A nationwide survey by the education-news network Chalkbeat found that roughly half of white students had the option of in-person instruction, while only about a quarter of Black and Hispanic students did,” MacGillis observed. “After a summer of renewed attention on the disparities facing Black people, millions of Black children would not be getting in-person education.”
None of this is to say that primary and secondary schools cannot become a source of COVID-19 transmission. It is to say, however, that those who obsess over the dangers of relaxed restrictions on social, educational, or economic activities are expressing a level of certainty that is not supported by data.
New York, we are told by figures as reputable as Dr. Anthony Fauci, pursued a reopening strategy “correctly” by advancing only slowly and methodically. Indeed, New York City’s public schools only opened for in-person education Tuesday, and indoor dining will only open for the first time since March on Wednesday. And yet, the city is experiencing a bloom of positive COVID-19 tests.
Though this resurgence is not attributable to the reopening of these institutions, the further deterioration of the city’s ability to contain this pandemic could result in their closure once again. Advocates for such an approach cite the South Korean experience. A second outbreak of this disease recently prompted South Korean officials to shut down most of its schools. This was, however, the result of a holistic approach to lockdown (one New York City will follow), which is deliberately blind to relative risk and errs on the side of caution.
Meanwhile, in states like Florida, which have been a source of frustration among lockdown enthusiasts for pursuing what critics claimed was a hasty reopening strategy, primary schools continue to fail to produce outbreaks. Indeed, while the state’s caseload is again on the rise, an analysis conducted by USA Today found “the state’s positive case count among kids ages 5 to 17 declined through late September after a peak in July.”
These unanticipated outcomes are not arguments against public health experts or their recommendations for mitigating the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Rather, they are evidence that policymaking cannot be the province of public health experts alone. It is the responsibility of elected officials in a representative democracy to balance a complex society’s competing interests. A society that cedes that duty to any one sector, regardless of how relevant it happens to be, invites any number of unforeseen consequences—in part, because no one wanted to foresee them in the first place.
If the Trump administration intervened on behalf of children and parents who were displaced by the relatively modest threat posed by in-person education, they did so with a full understanding that the public health risks were outweighed by the many societal consequences of such a policy. And they were right to do so.