The Consequence of Public-Health Officials Racing to Shutter Schools

Recently, I wrote about how new polling shows the K-12 COVID-19 fights aren’t going anywhere. I can picture plenty of readers seeing numbers like 36 percent of the public opposes mask mandates in K-12 schools and thinking, “Who on earth are these people?” As someone who is conflicted on mask mandates for kids, and thus has some sympathy for both camps, I think it’s well worth taking a moment to consider how the public-health community’s response to COVID may explain some of this reticence.

Insight into this issue comes from a rather unlikely source: a pandemic account from bestselling author Michael Lewis, titled The Premonition. In the book, Lewis — author of hugely successful books-turned-films like Moneyball and The Blind Side — clearly intended to write a heroic account of those individuals in the public-health community who responded aggressively to the threat of pandemic. But I found the book reads better as a cautionary tale that vividly illustrates why public-health officials have garnered so much distrust and how their models and assumptions have made it tougher to make good decisions about school closure and schooling during COVID.

I’ve offered a more expansive take on Lewis’ book over at Forbes, but what seems most salient for Ed Week readers is his fascination with school closure. Bizarrely, Lewis treats the very prospect of school closings in response to pandemics (in general) and COVID (in particular) as a good thing, a sign of seriousness, without ever once hinting that there might be devastating consequences for students, families, and communities.

Let’s be clear about those devastating consequences (see, for instance, here, here, or here). When the pandemic first emerged, as I wrote at the time, it was wholly reasonable to rapidly shutter schools in the face of a novel threat that we didn’t understand. But even as we learned more about COVID, public officials were reluctant to update their stance. This summer, for instance, even UNICEF and UNESCO issued a joint statement concluding that public-health officials had closed schools too hastily and kept them closed for too long, “even when the epidemiological situation didn’t warrant it.” They observed that school closure was often done “as a first recourse rather than a last measure,” resulting in “consequences for children [which] will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health.”

Yet, Lewis never even nods at the costs or considers the trade-offs of school closure. Though his book was published well after evidence showed that schools were not a significant source of community spread, he nonetheless treats as gospel academic models which suggested that “when you closed schools and put social distance between kids,” community spread “fell off a cliff.”

Indeed, two of the narrative’s heroes — former White House staffers Carter Mecher and Richard Hatchett — come across as heroic precisely because, back in the early 2000s, they were able to bake school closures into the national pandemic response plan. But the research Mecher relied upon to successfully win this commitment to school closure seems, even in Lewis’ adoring account, anything but scientific.

Lewis relates how Mecher, a father of six, was gobsmacked by how children behaved when he visited a local school. Lewis quotes Mecher’s take: “Look! Look at the way kids stand at the bus stop. When adults stand at a bus stop, they give each other space. Kids are like those close talkers on Seinfeld!” There are similar ah-ha’s about crowded hallways, how closely together kids sit in classrooms, and other ways that students don’t behave like little adults, all used to make the case that schools should be one of the first places to be shuttered in response to a possible pandemic.

In fact, Mecher first wanted to close America’s schools back in 2009 — during the first year of the Obama administration, when a swine flu outbreak raised concerns about pandemic (it ultimately passed without incident). Mecher and Hatchett had argued that schools should be closed “before more than 0.1 percent of the population” was infected. They acknowledged that this would require closing schools when a disease might have caused just five deaths in a city of 500,000.

Taken seriously, such a policy would make sweeping school closures commonplace even in reaction to illnesses no more extraordinary than the seasonal flu, which infects millions and kills thousands of Americans each year. But Lewis cheers this approach nonetheless, writing, “It would take extraordinary leadership to look at that situation and say, ‘Shut it all down.’ That would necessarily be unpopular, and difficult to explain to the public. But that’s what a leader would need to do.”

Such a stance shows remarkably little interest in the unintended consequences of closing schools or in the challenge of correcting course. Late in his account, Lewis blandly explains that Mecher and Hatchett expected that “as scientists learned more about the virus, the government would update the social interventions so that they remained as potent and targeted as possible.” Ignored is the reality of how tough it is to get schools reopened once educators, parents, and communities have been forcefully told that they’re not safe.

Again, school closure may be the right response to a potential pandemic. And, hell, over the next few years, school closure may sometimes be the right response to various COVID variants. But such decisions ought to be made deliberately and with due attention to competing risks — not enthusiastically by public-health officials disinclined to weigh all the costs, in favor of their preferred playbooks.

Why do so many Americans seem so skeptical of the public-health community’s directives, especially when it comes to schooling? Well, the fact that celebrated public-health officials were entirely unconcerned with the implications of shuttering schools may offer a clue. Ultimately, Lewis’ account left me not with a newfound appreciation for decisive public-health officials but with a sense of why so many Americans find them to be unreliable guides.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.