While the COVID-19 virus has caused a terrible swath of death, illness and economic devastation to sweep the United States (along with many other countries), it is crucial that our policy decisions in responding to it, particularly in regard to such a crucial issue as our children’s education, be guided by facts and reason, not emotion.

Let’s start with the known facts about the disease. Seventy-five percent of all deaths caused by the COVID-19 virus were of people over 70 years old. Ninety-one percent of those who died over 60. By contrast, under 1 percent, or eight deaths, of patients in New York City have occurred among those under 18 years of age. (One of those children was known to have had an underlying medical condition that contributed to his death). More broadly, a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that of 56,000 deaths from COVID-19, 12 occurred in children under 14 years of age while 600 in that age range were the result of influenza. The Journal of the American Medical Association (May 11) states that the risk of serious illness in children from COVID-19 is far less than from the flu.

In recent weeks, physicians have noted that some juvenile cases of COVID-19 have developed Kawasaki disease, a serious vascular inflammation that relatively rarely results in death. Some 2,000 to 4,000 Kawasaki cases occur per year (independently of COVID-19), for which there is usually successful medical treatment. But the outliers do not alter the fact, according to Dr. Scott Atlas, former professor and chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University and now a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, that children have practically “no risk of serious illness from the virus.”

But children attend school to learn from adults. What is the risk to teachers and staff of operating in a confined space during the pandemic? As noted above, only 9 percent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred among those under 60. The average age of teachers nationwide is 41. The fatality rate for those under 60 from COVID-19 is no higher than from the flu. Those teachers and administrators in higher-risk categories because of age or underlying conditions must be accommodated and protected. They can continue to teach online, be offered lower-exposure positions, or be given incentives to retire.

But we cannot afford to shut down the entire school system in order to protect the relatively small minority in the high-risk group, any more than we close it down during the annual flu season (which can run from September to March). The same is true for the risk to parents of schoolchildren. While we wish to minimize the danger of parents becoming infected, it can be presumed that they themselves wouldn’t want to sacrifice their own children’s educational prospects for the sake of maximizing their own safety.

The benefits of reopening public schools far outweigh the minimal risks to children and the relatively modest risks to adults. First, the loss of the full opportunity to learn by attending regular classes, especially for children from low-income and minority backgrounds cannot be overstated. Distance learning throughout the nation has been uneven at best and non-existent in some districts. While a few charter schools, such as the Success Academy network in New York City (with two-thirds minority and low-income students) have continued their entire program online, not all students have computers, and we cannot afford to postpone reopening regular classes until computers have been provided to all. Nor can we assume that parental supervision will suffice in all households to provide the necessary pressure to ensure that students regularly participate in online classes, or are sufficiently diligent in doing their assignments, as teachers in live classrooms can offer. (Some districts elsewhere in the country are already trying to compensate for the disadvantage suffered by students from low-income backgrounds by re-opening schools this summer to provide small-group learning for those most in need of help.)

Another major factor speaking in favor of school reopening is that it will enable parents of school-age children to return to work rather than having to stay home to look after their kids. This will remove a tremendous economic burden from many families, especially lower-income ones in which parents don’t hold the sort of jobs that can be performed online. (Additionally, of course, it will provide a desperately needed boost to our country’s economy.)

Other reasons for reopening schools this fall include the fact that especially in cities, they have become a major source of meals and healthcare, and they must reopen to provide these services to those in need; and that the reopening will give children a renewed opportunity to socialize with their peers, an essential element of their mental and emotional development.

One other important and little-discussed benefit of reopening the public schools is to enable a large population to develop immunity to COVID-19 at little risk. The original goal of shutting down schools and businesses was to “flatten the curve” so hospitals were not overwhelmed; it was not intended to prevent all cases of the disease from occurring (an unachievable goal). A population gets immunity by having the disease and generating antibodies which then block transmission to others. Isolating people prevents them from getting antibodies. But transmission of the disease among children, a large, low-risk population will promote the spread of antibodies. (In fact, some 50 percent of those who get the disease don’t know they have it because the symptoms are so mild.) Encouraging transmission among large, low-risk populations is the only way to develop close to “herd immunity” in the absence of a vaccine, which is unlikely to be developed and made widely available at any time during the coming school year.

The U.S. public schools have the technology, the human resources, and the organizational capacity to reopen this fall and even as early as this summer. How to meet the public-health requirements set forth by the federal and state governments, such as social distancing and disinfecting buildings will need to be decided by local school districts in conjunction with parents, who must feel that schools are safe for their children, and with community members whose taxes fund the schools. In this regard, it was quite improper for the head of the local teachers' union, the Educational Association of Worcester, to try to direct the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce to “stay in their own lane” and not interfere with Worcester Public Schools policy (Telegram & Gazette, May 9). Public education is a community enterprise, not a distinct “lane” to be directed solely by members of the teachers’ union.

Similarly, the National Education Association, the largest national teachers’ union, should not have tried to dictate that districts not reopen unless “contact tracing” is in place. While presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed the establishment of a U.S. Public Health Job Corps, a new permanent bureaucracy, consisting of 100,000 contact tracers charged with tracking down people who’ve been exposed to the virus and requiring them to self-quarantine and release the names of all the individuals with whom they’ve been in contact, this policy is unlikely to be effective or feasible. Apart from entailing serious issues of personal privacy, contact tracing, according to Dr. Atlas, is valuable only at the beginning of a pandemic when the original locus of an outbreak can be identified (such as occurred at the Biogen conference held in Boston in early March of this year.). It is of little value after the disease is widespread.

We cannot allow America’s schools to remain in lockdown, or to rely on “distance learning,” for the coming academic year. Barring some terrible but currently unforeseen increase in the disease’s threat to the non-elderly population, we must reopen our schools this fall, while taking all feasible precautions to minimize medical harm to the people as a whole, including, of course, our children. While serious illness can threaten our children’s well-being, so does educational deprivation.

—Roberta Schaefer is the founder and former president of Worcester Regional Research Bureau.