Monday, November 09, 2020

Our Covid Dilemma


An article in The Atlantic is entitled, "Schools Aren't Super-Spreaders." A more recent article in The New York Times announces, "Schoolchildren Seem Unlikely to Fuel Coronavirus Surges." As an educator, these kinds of headlines are encouraging. Not that all the data is in, of course. There is still a lot we don't know about Covid, but the data so far seems to indicate that young children coming together in school settings aren't contributing significantly to our current surge in cases. This news isn't likely to stop educators from worrying about the health of the children we teach, the health of their families, and that of ourselves and our colleagues, but it is a bright spot as the pandemic continues to rage here in the US and around the world.

Yes, children still get sick, sometimes severely so, but it appears that like some other virus-caused illnesses like chicken pox, measles, fifth disease, and mumps, the severity of symptoms and the incidence of complications is higher in adults than kids. Indeed, children are more likely to be completely asymptomatic. That said, we also know that children can spread viral illnesses to those who are more vulnerable like their teachers and parents, but this is apparently not happening in a meaningful way with Covid, at least within the context of schools. 

The question is, why? Is there something about the immune systems of young children that makes them naturally resistant? Could it simply be that they are low to the ground and just less likely to cough right into an adult's face? Is this a punishment of the gods that bypasses innocent children? 

We don't know. The scientists have so far been silent on that, but I have to think that it has at least something to do with the extreme preventative measures we are taking in our schools that have re-opened. I mean, as a preschool teacher, one of the most onerous parts of my job in pre-pandemic times was keeping the place as germ free as possible. We already sanitized surfaces several times a day. We already encouraged kids to cough into their elbows, to regularly wash their hands, and to stay home when ill. Covid has simply ramped up our vigilance. Not only that, but we're keeping class sizes smaller, spending more time outside, enforcing the wearing of face coverings, discouraging the sharing of certain materials, and limiting access of non-essential adults to the classroom. 

In other words, the schools that have re-opened are doing what health officials are urging all of us to do. So is it any wonder that our schools, so far, have not become vector points for spreading Covid?

But here's the rub: we are achieving this because, to put it bluntly, schools are dictatorships. The children really have no choice. They are told to wear their masks. They are made to wash their hands. They are cautioned when they get too close to someone else. I'm not suggesting that teachers are behaving as drill sergeants or treating children harshly, but rather pointing out that we do tend to enforce our health and safety rules. If nothing else, doing so is a condition of remaining open.

This contrasts to how these same health and safety "rules" are being enforced in the adult population. Indeed, we tend to call them "guidelines" and even gentle reminders are sometimes treated as egregious impositions on an individual's freedom. I get it. I don't like being told what to do. Few of us do. Indeed, behavioral scientists regularly find that commanding others to do something is one of the worst ways to get them to do it. It's not surprising that the data surrounding the spread of Covid amongst older children, like high schoolers, is much more mixed. Teenagers are far more likely to be in a position to break the rules than younger children, which probably explains why they are more likely to become spreaders.

This situation highlights the horns of the dilemma between which we find ourselves as a society. We know how to slow the spread, our preschools and elementary schools are real-life laboratories that demonstrate what we can do, but many, if not most, of us adults are unwilling to subject ourselves to the sort of enforcement regime we apply to our children.

What gratifies me about where I live is that most of the adults, most of the time are choosing to wear their masks and keep their distance, not because we've been commanded or under threat of punishment, but because we've listened to the evidence and are taking measures to protect ourselves and others. It's not an accident that our rate of increase is lower than other parts of the country where adults tend to be more defiant about being told what to do. Ironically, these are also more likely to be the places where the schools are open and, so far, successfully avoiding becoming super-spreaders. But, this isn't because children are magically immune. It's because educators, as always, are taking health and safety seriously. 

Most of us would rebel if we were treated like children in school (which is a matter upon which we all ought to reflect, especially when it comes to matters that don't fall under the rubric of health and safety). Even if we could impose the rigid rules upon adults, they wouldn't work without a level of enforcement that would  be unacceptable to most of us. After all, what has been done is for many already a bridge too far. We are not a dictatorship. We cannot rely upon the tools of dictatorship. We are a self-governing people, and because of that, we ultimately have no choice but to rely on the intelligence, goodwill, and compassion of our fellow citizens. This is the only way forward and that is the real challenge before us. 

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