Talking Points

Schools should open. But can they?

A million new cases of COVID-19 were reported Monday in the United States. That's a new record, and one that comes the same week millions of American students are supposed to be headed back to school following the holiday break.

And maybe they will. This isn't March 2020: There seems to be a growing — if unsteady — consensus that kids should be in the classroom while omicron burns through the landscape around them. New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) has vowed schools will stay open, for example, and all but a few cities are either following that lead or delaying their return by just a few days. The White House is on board with this approach. Officials are uncomfortably aware there might be a political price to be paid for school shutdowns, and there's evidence Zoom classrooms have taken a terrible toll on kids' mental health and academic achievement.

"Given the choices that the country has made," the New York Times' David Leonhardt wrote Tuesday, "it should not be surprising that children are suffering so much." The time for lockdowns, he suggested, is over. 

So the debate over whether schools should be open is largely settled, it seems. Now the question is whether they can be open.

Here are some data points from around the country: In Miami, 10 percent of teachers are out sick — probably with COVID. In New York, about a third of the city's students didn't show up on Monday, and some of those who did couldn't get breakfast because of a shortage of cafeteria workers. Similar problems are expected to pop up across the country in the coming days. 

Teachers get sick. Staff get sick. Or, if they don't get sick, they test positive for COVID and still have to stay home for a few days. And even if they're healthy, many professionals in public schools are parents, too — they might be forced to stay home to take care of a child who has caught the virus. Staffing shortages are hitting hospitals, and it only makes sense that schools might be affected, too. Some of them will be forced to shut down, whatever the intentions and hopes of parents and administrators alike.

The CDC has been revamping its policies to help keep students in school. And with vaccines available, officials should do everything they can to keep America's schools open. But the the pandemic isn't over. The virus still gets a vote.