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Keep schools open -- and shut down almost everything else
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Keep schools open -- and shut down almost everything else

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Last Monday night we got the call we've been dreading. The assistant principal told me over the phone that our son, a 13-year-old autistic boy with Down syndrome, had been exposed to Covid-19 the previous week by "someone who works closely with him" in his special education classroom. My wife soon developed symptoms and tested positive, my son's been running a low fever all week and I've had a weird dry cough. Covid has come to our home.

Since early in the pandemic, pundits and epidemiologists have been debating the extent to which children are themselves at risk for getting sick from the virus, are vectors to spread the virus to more vulnerable populations and whether the costs (psychological, educational, and economic) of keeping schools closed are worth it. As the pandemic intensifies, with over a million confirmed cases in the last week in the US and more to come, it's clear that no amount of magical thinking will protect our children or the adults with whom kids come into contact.

At the same time, keeping schools closed is brutal and even dangerous for so many children and their families, wreaking havoc on working parents and intensifying educational inequality.

Our state department of education, after months of lobbying, issued guidance two days before the school year started that gave school districts permission to pay for aides to work with children like our son in the home, but they didn't mandate it and our district has repeatedly declined to do so. Our son is legally entitled under federal law to a "free and appropriate public education," but was only offered one if we placed him at higher risk of Covid by sending him to school, and we made the hard choice.

Maybe it was the wrong choice. No one should have to make this choice, but parents all over the country are being squeezed between bad options. Teachers and other school employees, likewise, have to choose between safety and their jobs. We don't blame anyone who works with our son; the whole situation is untenable.

Fortunately, there's another path to take going forward. We know more lockdowns are coming, but this time, we could prioritize children over bars, restaurants, working out, sports and socializing in our homes. It's time to keep schools and daycares open -- and shut almost everything else down.

A number of states have taken recent steps to curb the explosive and renewed spread of the novel coronavirus, but not all mitigation efforts are created equal. In my own state of Minnesota, as well as New York, the Democratic governors have issued new restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment, but they seem woefully inadequate. Both states are closing bars and restaurants after 10 p.m., as if the virus only comes out late at night. New Yorkers can still pant and sweat in public gyms until that hour. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz is banning social gatherings of "members of more than 3 households," which is two households too many.

In contrast, on Sunday night, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee took the kind of drastic measures that the current surge requires. He simply closed indoor service and entertainments, limited outdoor capacity to parties of five or fewer, and perhaps most critically, banned multi-household gatherings unless all participants have tested negative and spent a week in quarantine first.

It's understandable that governors are hesitant to impose more drastic restrictions on businesses or on households as the holidays approach. People are struggling economically and there's no relief bill to cushion the blow, though perhaps one is in the works (as a reminder: The House passed a relief bill in May; the Senate has yet to bring one to the floor for a vote), but as the pandemic gets worse and worse, shutdowns will follow. The question is this time, will we exit the shutdown in ways that prioritizes education over lifting weights and public consumption of food and liquor?

The more stringent lockdowns imposed by Inslee are unusual in the United States, but are exactly the kind of strict approach mandated by other countries last spring that successfully knocked infection rates back. In Europe, as relaxed restrictions have resulted in renewed spread of the virus, moderate lockdowns have not helped. Ireland therefore has announced a severe lockdown for at least six weeks in order to get control. Half measures won't cut it.

There's good news. Vaccines are coming and there's hope that by next August we might be in a different place, somewhere back near normal, when my son starts his freshman year of high school. But we haven't had normal school since March and the education gaps are beginning to show. We ultimately have to choose: bars and gyms or schools and daycares?

Choose wisely.

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