WASHINGTON — The nation’s most visible public health official offered a stark choice to communities around the country facing difficult choices about how to proceed safely through what could be the most treacherous months of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you have a choice between closing the schools and closing the bars, close the bars,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, flatly told Yahoo News on Monday morning.
That guidance comes just days after New York City, the nation’s largest school district, announced that it was shuttering classrooms and returning to fully remote instruction. Its return to in-person school earlier this fall, albeit partial, was widely regarded as a success.
The schools in New York closed despite positivity rates remaining low within the school population, at 0.19 percent. Instead, they were shuttered because the city at large met the 3 percent positivity rate that Mayor Bill de Blasio had said would trigger an automatic closure.
The city’s positivity rate appears to be driven by people congregating in bars, restaurants and other social spaces. Over the weekend, for example, authorities shut down a sex party in Queens.
Many other districts are moving in the same direction, potentially relegating children to months more of classes on Zoom. That has led some to wonder why schools are being forced to bear the pandemic’s brunt, when it is adults in adult spaces who seem to be spreading the virus.
Evidence strongly indicates that schools are not the sites of significant viral transmission, either between children or between children and adults. That is especially true for younger children, who tend to struggle the most with online learning. The risk appears to increase with age, for reasons that are not yet entirely understood.
Fauci explained to Yahoo News that teachers may be unwilling to teach in a “hot zone,” even if schools themselves remain islands free of the airborne pathogen. “They’re concerned — understandably concerned — about coming to school in a person-to-person way as opposed to virtual.”
In cities like New York, Washington, D.C, Chicago and Los Angeles, powerful teachers’ unions with deep ties to Democratic leadership could embolden teachers to “make their intentions known by their feet,” as Fauci put it, and simply say that they will not show up to teach in person.
In July, nearly 20 percent of teachers told Education Week that they “won’t return to work if their district does reopen school buildings.” Given the relative difficulty of hiring, certifying and training teachers, an informal educators’ strike could cripple reopening plans. Teachers’ reluctance to return to in-person instruction has crippled plans for Washington, D.C., to bring some students back into the classroom.
The unions have insisted that they do want to return to in-person instruction, but many leaders say that it is not yet safe to do so. “You could wind up almost having to have a school that doesn’t open, not on the basis of the science of the kids getting infected,” Fauci said, “but perception on the part of the teachers that they are at risk.”
One union in Fairfax County, a suburban district across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., has called for school to remain virtual until August 2021. That call was derided by some as overly cautious.
President Trump first called for schools to reopen back in July but offered public educators none of the funding they said they needed to reopen safely. His involvement served only to politicize the issue, with many Democrats coming to oppose reopening schools at least in part because they had come to regard any aspect of Trump’s response as toxic.
Fauci himself has been a frequent critic of the president, who has in turn said that he would fire the renowned immunologist. On this one issue of schools, the two men appeared to be in agreement.
“To the best of your capability,” Fauci told Yahoo News, “try to keep the kids in school.”
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