As we begin the new year, the five words that American high school and college students most dread are these: “in an abundance of caution.”
It was “in an abundance of caution” that high schools and colleges originally sent students home in 2020 just “to flatten the curve,” yet stayed remote for more than a year.
It was “in an abundance of caution” that students were told not to socialize outside of a limited “bubble” — solidifying cliques and isolating less popular teens. It was “in an abundance of caution” that proms were cancelled, graduations postponed and entire athletic seasons lost.
It was “in an abundance of caution” that some colleges told depressed students that mental health counselors would only offer telehealth appointments.
And what, exactly, did high schools and colleges need to be so cautious about? How many high school and college students have died from COVID or even been hospitalized? Yes, there have been some. But the likelihood of death or hospitalization for people in this age group with no pre-existing conditions was extremely low even prior to the advent of vaccines and the development of treatments. Now that the vast majority of these students are vaccinated, the risk of serious illness to students — and to their teachers — is infinitesimal. By contrast, the costs in terms of isolation, mental illness, ineffective virtual learning and lost social interaction are vast.
At Dartmouth College, three first-year students took their own lives during the 2020-21 school year. At Yale, first-year student Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum told the Yale Daily News in the fall of 2020 that she was more worried about her mental health than catching COVID. Six months later, she died by suicide in her dormitory. Her mother told the New York Times that the pandemic pushed her over the edge.
The response of many American colleges has been to hire more mental health counselors, but what students really need are opportunities to interact face-to-face with their teachers and peers.
And, yet, in a time when we need to be thinking about returning to normalcy, many schools are moving backward.
According to news sources, more than 800 U.S. primary or secondary schools are planning on shutting down in January. Thankfully, Gov. Charlie Baker has thus far resisted the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s call for such nonsense.
At the college level, more than 70 colleges are starting the term online.
Here in New England, Emerson College has ordered students to stay in their rooms from Jan. 3 to 17. Harvard and Bates have announced plans to begin the spring semester online. And Yale is both delaying their start and beginning classes remotely. Dartmouth College seems to be treading cautiously. Fortunately, classes resume in person on Jan. 4. But the college is shifting to “grab-and-go” dining, closing fitness centers and severely limiting any indoor gatherings other than class. (And who wouldn’t want to gather outside to eat dinner in Hanover, N.H., where tomorrow’s low temperature is forecast at 7 degrees?)
All of these changes are a mistake.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health says omicron should not be an excuse for closing down schools and reimposing remote learning.
Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security agrees.
“We have to start focusing on serious disease and hospitalization, not cases,” Adalja told Forbes.
Ken Henderson, chancellor of Northeastern University, seems to have gotten the message. In announcing Northeastern’s plans to be open in person next semester, Henderson wrote, “Our job is to continue to control COVID effectively, not let COVID control us.” Yet, Northeastern will continue to require weekly testing.
Remarkably, our nation’s educators could learn from the National Football League. The NFL has announced that fully vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals do not need to test weekly anymore. Players or staff members who report symptoms are required to isolate and test, and those who are positive can return after five days, in accordance with CDC guidelines. They will have to wear a mask at the practice facility for the next five days. Because people can be “persistently positive” for several weeks or months after recovering from COVID, players won’t have to provide a negative test to return to play.
Colleges and high schools with high vaccination rates should follow the NFL’s lead. Indeed, needless testing of asymptomatic students is a fruitless effort to find positive tests and punish students. In the future, will we be testing asymptomatic students for the flu?
In 2022, let’s resolve to abandon “an abundance of caution” and start putting students first.