Reopening Schools Before a Children’s Vaccine


Reopening Schools Before a Children’s Vaccine

Experts say we may not need to wait.

This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

The first coronavirus vaccines for adults are nearly here, but children’s vaccines will take a lot longer. Pfizer and Moderna’s pediatric trials are just getting started for children older than 12.

So what does that mean for the timeline to fully reopen schools?

For once, we have good news. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told Adam last month that it’s “an extra added benefit when we get the vaccine for the kids,” but that it is not a prerequisite for reopening. That has been echoed by many teachers groups and medical experts.

“There’s very little concern or sense that school shouldn’t be open because the kids aren’t vaccinated,” said Colin Sharkey, the executive director of the Association of American Educators.

Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the F.D.A.’s vaccine advisory panel, said, “It’s extremely rare for a child to die of this virus, so it’s the teachers that you need to vaccinate.”

Teachers will be in an early group of people to receive vaccines, after health care workers and people living in long-term care facilities. Even before teachers are vaccinated, their unions say that elementary schools can be reopened safely, as long as districts follow testing, personal protective equipment, physical distancing and ventilation protocols. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Young kids do not pose a high risk of infecting others.

“You can reopen elementary schools before you have the vaccine for teachers, but the vaccine will create an insurance that things are safe,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Importantly, it’s not just teachers that need protecting. Custodial staff members and lunch workers, receptionists and bus drivers are all part of the school community.

“The equity angle is really important,” said Dr. Grace M. Lee, an associate chief medical officer for practice innovation at Stanford Children’s Health. “All of the folks that enable a school to open are going to be critical to that work force.”

Similar questions about access and equity for children, though, are months down the line. The vaccine process and timeline for children will inevitably look very different, because researchers would start widespread testing only if they discovered no serious side effects.

“Vaccine developers are keenly aware that children are not simply miniature adults,” our colleague Carl Zimmer explained earlier this fall. “Their biology is different in ways that may affect the way vaccines work.”

For example, young children have more active immune systems than adults, and may have stronger reactions, including more fever, aches and fatigue.

Even once vaccines are available, conspiracy theories and mistrust could slow their adoption. Some governors have already said they will not mandate vaccines. Although mandates would aid herd immunity, doctors and teachers groups worried that it would just distract from the main issue: keeping kids learning.

“We’ll lose the war over whether to vaccinate if we start a conversation about whether it’s mandatory,” Weingarten said. “We have to create trust first and foremost.”

Angel Medrano, 8, got help with math from his sister Cassandra, 16, while distance learning in Phoenix in October.
Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

As the fall semester winds to a close, final assessments and midterm grades are due. And many, many children will have failed their classes.

  • In Houston, the nation’s seventh-largest public school district, 42 percent of students failed two or more classes in the first grading period, compared with 11 percent in a normal year.

  • In Fairfax County, Va., an internal analysis found that the percentage of middle school and high school students earning F’s in at least two classes had jumped to 11 percent in the first quarter this year from 6 percent a year ago.

  • In Washington, D.C., internal testing data shows steep declines in the number of kindergartners through second-grade students meeting literacy benchmarks.

  • In Chicago, the nation’s second-largest district, 13 percent of high school students failed math in the fall quarter, compared with 9.5 percent last fall.

“We’re obviously dealing with unprecedented learning loss and course failure,” Brian T. Woods, a Texas superintendent, said, “and it’s going to take years to mitigate.” In his district, the share of students failing at least one course in the first grading period increased to roughly 25 percent from 8 percent last year.

But in many cases, it is the schools have failed their students. Few children in the districts above have spent time learning in-person this semester. Many struggled to access classes online. The most vulnerable and disadvantaged students are suffering the most from continued remote learning.

In the spring, districts made major changes in student report cards — dropping letter grades, guaranteeing A’s or ensuring that performance during the pandemic would not count against students. But many have since returned to normal grading patterns.

A strong rebuke: Seven families sued the State of California on Monday over the quality of education that their children are receiving at home this year. In the lawsuit, they said that remote learning had exacerbated inequality in schools and deprived minority students from poor families of their right to an education.

A close look: The Washington Post reported on a school where around 90 percent of first graders were on target for reading levels in March. By the fall, every single kid had fallen behind.

  • Over 200 faculty members at the University of Florida have requested reprieves from in-person teaching next semester. But only 78 will be allowed to teach remotely, Corbin Bolies reported for The Alligator, the student newspaper.

  • Male enrollment at community colleges is plummeting, especially among students of color, The 74 reported.

  • Colleges across the country are urging Congress to pass a bill with $120 billion in higher education relief legislation.

  • The student government at the University of Maryland will distribute over $400,000 to classmates in need.

  • Students are suing both the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech for a partial reimbursement of tuition and fees after classes moved online.

  • An open letter: “We have every reason to expect that the University will — once again — be overwhelmed by infections when classes resume,” wrote faculty at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professors are asking the university to cancel most face-to-face instruction in the spring semester.

  • Parents in Washington, D.C., should plan for children to return to classrooms in February, the chancellor said.

  • In-person learning has temporarily stopped at 47 of the 50 largest districts in Minnesota, as cases climb.

  • Several districts in Virginia have started inching toward more in-person instruction.

  • Maine plans to keep schools open, even as cases rise. “It is largely not due to school-based transmission,” the state’s education commissioner said. “It’s community based. It would be not the safest thing to do to close schools down, even though people might be thinking we should close things.”

  • A good read: In South Korea, the pandemic has added anxiety and protocols to the already grueling nine-hour college entrance exam. Thirty-five students who tested positive for the virus took the exam in negative-pressure rooms at hospitals around the country.

Credit…Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

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