Lately, I’ve seen a narrative emerge that closing schools and shifting to remote learning at the pandemic’s start was an obvious and colossal mistake. Maybe it was. I certainly didn’t like it for my own children, and I won’t pretend to be an expert in education. However, I’m not sure that remote learning was an obvious and colossal mistake.

We know what happened in the real-world. What would have happened had schools remained open without any mitigation measures?

One obvious answer, is that nearly all children would have gotten COVID, as would everyone they live with, and most school employees. Despite early hopes that schools were magically immune to the spread of COVID, subsequent research revealed the unsurprising news that the virus spreads quite well in schools, especially those without any mitigation measures.

How then would the unmitigated spread of COVID affected children, none of whom were vaccinated?

The vast majority would have been just fine, thankfully. However, in the real world, the CDC COVID Data Tracker reports that over 1,850 children have died of COVID. This number would have been higher had 60-70 million unvaccinated children contracted the virus over several months time in 2020. It’s reasonable to assume that several thousand children would have died had no mitigation measures been taken.

Death is not the only bad outcome from COVID. In the real world, around 150,000 children have been hospitalized with COVID. Some were very sick, needing mechanical ventilation in the ICU. Neurological complications are not uncommon in hospitalized children. Rarely, they have needed amputations or had strokes. Over 9,000 children had MIS-C and most of these children go to the ICU. 74 children have died of MIS-C. The vaccine has drastically lowered the risk of these rare, but grave outcomes. Many thousands more children would have been hospitalized or developed MIS-C had no mitigation measures been taken at the pandemic’s start.

In the real world, many pediatric hospitals were deluged during the Delta and Omicron waves. It’s doubtful they would have had the resources to treat sick children had tens of millions of them contracted COVID in a short time span, especially considering many healthcare workers were sick with COVID at the start of the pandemic. Of course, more healthcare workers would have contracted COVID, either from their jobs or their own children, had no mitigation measures been taken in schools.

In the real word, over 200,000 American children lost a parent or caregiver to the virus by the spring of 2022. In New York City, 8,600 children, or 1 in 200 children, lost a parent or caregiver in the pandemic’s first two years. This was bad for children. After the death of her father, 15-year-old Elizabeth George said, “I didn’t want to go to school. I just wanted to stay at home”. Many more children would have brought the virus home to their unvaccinated families had no mitigation measures been taken at the pandemic’s start. There would be many more COVID orphans.

Beyond this, some children just feel really rotten from COVID, and not all bounce back immediately. In the real world, many children felt too sick to attend school. During surges, many parents, perhaps vulnerable themselves, did not feel safe sending their children to school without mitigation measures. During the Omicron wave, 30% of New York City students were absent. If schools had remained open without mitigation measures, many children would have missed school anyway for these reasons.

Teachers would have been at risk as well. According to one news article from May 11th, 2020:

The New York City Department of Education said it has now lost 74 employees to COVID-19. On Monday, official announced the two new deaths. All but four of the 74 DOE employees who died were based in schools across the city. The other 70 school-based employees include:

  • 28 are paraprofessionals
  • 30 are teachers
  • 2 are food service staffers
  • 2 are administrators
  • 2 are facilities staff
  • 2 are school aides

Even after vaccines were available, headlines read “15 Miami-Dade Educators Die From COVID-19 in 10 Days”. More educators, none of whom were vaccinated at the pandemic’s start, would have died had no mitigation measures been taken. Would teachers have been willing to work in schools with no mitigation measures?

In the real world, sick teachers couldn’t teach. New Mexico called in the National Guard to act as substitute teachers during the winter Omicron wave. Elsewhere, principals begged parents to act as substitute teachers. The virus still closed schools. One typical headline from Texas from September 2021 read, “At least 45 districts shut down in-person classes due to COVID-19 cases, affecting more than 40,000 students”. Similar headlines appeared throughout the country whenever cases soared. One school in New York City sent a notice that though it was “open”, the kids were just going to hang out in the auditorium much of the day. There weren’t enough teachers, and so the school was nothing more than a daycare center. More educators would have been out sick had no mitigation measures been taken. Who would have taught the students?

So maybe closing schools was an obvious and colossal mistake. However, those who make this claim should honestly grapple with what would have happened had nothing been done rather than indulge an absurd, revisionist fantasy that everything would have been fine and dandy.

Author

  • Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.

Posted by Jonathan Howard

Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.