Social Sciences

What the science really says: Closing schools is vital to containing COVID-19

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

As over 10,000 Chicago teachers and staff are engaged in a struggle to oppose the city’s effort to reopen public schools, the entire US media is waging a campaign to pressure educators to resume in-person schooling.

Every major national newspaper in the US, regardless of its political affiliation, has over the past week published statements falsely claiming that schools are safe to reopen. These reports incorrectly assert that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared that schools are safe. They slander teachers by claiming that educators’ concerns about safety are based on anti-scientific fear-mongering.

The crassest expression of this campaign was Tuesday’s editorial in the Chicago Tribune, alleging that teachers “ignore science.” The article asserted that teachers were falsely claiming “to be a voice for ‘the children,” while “actual science” is “making it harder for teachers unions to continue to justify staying home.”

The Chicago Tribune editorial echoed the talking points from Friday’s editorial in the Washington Post, titled, “The covid-19 danger does not lie in the classroom, but in the community.”

“Study after study has shown that schools can be safe,” wrote David Brooks of the New York Times. “A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just attested to this fact,” Brooks said, declaring the resistance of educators to schools reopening is a “wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping America.”

All three of these columns base their assertions on a misrepresentation of an opinion piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA ). None of these editorials and op-eds, which breathlessly declare that the CDC says schools are safe, cite the disclaimer at the bottom of the opinion piece to which they are referring: “The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Even the Biden administration, which is at the forefront of the drive to reopen schools in the United States, felt compelled to distance itself from the media’s rampant misuse of the JAMA report and another study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) journal.

In a press briefing Thursday, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki made clear that these were not official CDC guidelines, adding that “the CDC hasn’t issued the formal recommendations or requirements on how all schools across the country can open. They did a report, as they do reports frequently, based on an area in Wisconsin,” stressing the report had extremely limited applicability to urban areas such as Chicago.

In reality, the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence shows that closing schools, together with other vital social distancing measures, leads to a reduction in the spread of COVID-19.

About the author

Mamie M. Arndt