Children, of course, are not the only ones who have suffered under stay-at-home orders. In their own ways, grandparents and other elders, small-business owners and their employees, and caregivers are all under strain. Many essential workers and their families, disproportionately people of color, live in areas hit viciously by the virus. Even people without visible signs of emotional distress have undergone latent suffering that may not surface for years.
But we persevered, understanding that this suffering was necessary and would help us in the future. Somerville was in even better shape than our state as a whole. The city had been a leader in COVID-19 crisis management, prioritizing free testing and contact tracing, and delaying reopening parameters weeks longer than everyone else. The payoff was a healthier, safer environment for school reopening. When the state issued school guidance in July, our mayor declared early that he would bring children back only with more stringent precautions, including six-foot distancing instead of three. These were solid, evidence-driven decisions that, at least for me, inspired confidence. I was surprised two weeks later when, in virtual school-committee meetings and town halls, online letters and Facebook groups, almost all Somerville teachers and many parents disagreed. Nothing was worth the risk. Children could not safely return to school.
America’s continuing national catastrophe surely colors the decisions local authorities are making. The discussions between teachers’ unions and school committees in New England have been occurring as schools and camps inappropriately reopened in regions of the country with uncontrolled spread, where science was ignored and the curve was never flattened. Leaders there had no business bringing children back. They did it anyway. Egregiously bad plans—at residential camps in Missouri and Georgia, at schools in Indiana—had predictably bad outcomes. Meanwhile, in states such as mine, with controlled spread and a broad acceptance of public-health measures, many parents, teachers, and other members of the public surveyed the headlines and decided that, for children, staying home was still safer.
“One death is too many,” one distressed teacher said at a school-committee meeting. I won’t argue with that. But physicians are trained to weigh the risks and benefits not just of treatment but also of nontreatment. To focus only on the downside of reopening is to ignore the significant risks of staying closed: mental illness, hunger, physical inactivity, undetected child abuse, the trauma that results from witnessing violence. Is one death from suicide too many? From head trauma caused by an abusive caregiver? From an accident that befalls an under-supervised preschooler?