Recently, the Los Angeles School District and its teachers union reached a tentative agreement on COVID-19 safety protocols for the 2021-22 school year. As we should have come to expect from both California and teachers’ unions, it is full of needless restrictions that harm students more than help them.
California has kept COVID-19 mitigation policies in place much longer than almost any other state and Governor Gavin Newsom refuses to end the state of emergency giving him expanded powers. While many public health measures are now being removed, he is retaining the power to reinstate them later. For the most part, adults can live normal lives again. Children, however, are not so lucky.
Children have already borne the brunt of our COVID-19 response, even though we have known since last March that the risk of serious illness and death increases with age. Children’s social ties are far less developed than those of adults, and they are far more dependent on physical proximity and shared activities than adults. Unfortunately, these activities were shut down in the name of public health: no sports leagues, after-school activities, or clubs. In many cases, parents did not even want children visiting friends, amplifying the social isolation. It should come as no surprise that youth suicides increased dramatically during 2020.
This social isolation was combined with lower quality education. Online education lasted much longer in California than in other states. But this experiment in virtual learning has shown that the medium is still lacking. Educational attainment is down and the struggles of online education are well documented. In spring 2020, my university switched to remote learning. While I put in considerable effort to redesign my course on the fly and my students tried admirably in the midst of a sudden extreme change, I know it was inferior to normal, in-person classes.
While children missed out on education and developing social bonds, not all children were impacted equally. Lower-income students were harmed the most. It is no secret that high-income adults with advanced degrees fared well during the pandemic while others suffered. Similarly, those with the highest incomes were able to use their resources to ensure their children received some form of instruction.
Evidence repeatedly shows that children are not responsible for the spread of COVID-19. We have known this for a long time, yet policymakers continue to ignore this and make children suffer. European countries have had in-person schooling since late spring 2020, with children under 12 not forced to wear masks. Studies have found that schools are not a vector of spread; instead, it is adults in the community.
Not only do children not spread COVID-19, but they also face little risk from the virus, contrary to the fear-mongering headlines throughout the pandemic. Children aged 5 to 14 are more likely to die from cancer, a car accident, drowning, and the flu than from COVID-19. While these are tragic, we do not disrupt children’s lives to protect them from these risks.
Yet you would not know this from California’s restrictions for public schools. Children will be subjected to public health measures for the entirety of the 2021-22 school year, long after adults have returned to a normal life. Students and teachers will be subjected to daily health screenings before beginning the school day. Students will also be required to wear masks at all times at school. This mandate includes all children over the age of two. It also includes any student who has already been fully vaccinated, despite the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing symptomatic illness, hospitalizations, and death. Additionally, schools must disinfect surfaces daily to prevent the spread of the virus, even though we know fomite spread is extraordinarily rare. To be fair, the agreement includes a provision to improve ventilation in classrooms, an underrated and effective means of reducing the spread of airborne viruses.
Most of the mitigation measures are pandemic security theater, designed to look effective rather than be effective. Masks are a constant signal of vigilance, signifying that the wearer is taking the pandemic seriously, although the evidence in favor of masks is modest. Wiping down surfaces does not meaningfully reduce the spread of COVID, but it lets us look like we are doing something.
For too many, any restriction is worth the cost if it could save one life from COVID-19. But that is a terrible way to design public policy. It would require banning basics of everyday life like swimming, automobiles, and bedroom furniture, which all pose a risk.
Children should not be forced to continue to sacrifice just to indulge the fears of fully vaccinated adults. The risk to children is minuscule, yet they are the last we are still forcing to endure grueling public health measures. These measures hamper children’s educational and social development and should have been removed as soon as possible. These could be forgiven in March 2020, but now, California’s restrictions cannot be justified by any sort of risk assessment.
Conor Norris is a research analyst at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at Saint Francis University. He graduated from George Mason University with an MA in economics.