The Trump administration stressed its opposition on Thursday to closing schools as a means to combat the coronavirus, even as some of the largest districts in the United States were closing anew or postponed reopening.
“We do not support closing schools,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a White House news conference, arguing that such measures carried a “real cost” to children, a viewpoint echoed by other members of the White House coronavirus task force.
The vice president’s comments came on the same day that schools across New York City, the country’s largest public school system, shut their doors after being open for in-person instruction for a little less than eight weeks.
New York City, having lived through one of the worst outbreaks in the country in the spring, had taken one of the most cautious stances toward school closings. As soon as the city reached a 3 percent test positivity rate over a rolling, seven-day average, the policy called for schools to close. When that mark was hit this week, in-person classes were over for 1.1 million students at 1,800 schools.
Other large school districts, including in Chicago and Los Angeles, remain closed, although Chicago tentatively set a January deadline for its students to return to classrooms. Philadelphia recently delayed reopening schools, and Detroit also suspended in-person instruction.
Some states have taken a multitrack approach.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo allowed elementary and middle schools to remain open during a two-week shutdown scheduled to begin on Nov. 30, but said high schools must close unless the local administration presented an enforceable risk-mitigation plan.
Elementary schools have not proved to be major spreaders, the governor noted, and younger students benefit especially from being in the classroom. High schools are “more problematic,” Ms. Raimondo said, because teenagers are more mobile, more exposed to the virus through outside jobs or sports, and generally less inclined to wear masks.
Mississippi is taking it on a case-by-case basis. Of the state’s 1,200 schools, more than 65 had to go back to virtual learning because of outbreaks, Dr. Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist, said at a news conference this week. The trigger for a school to move to remote learning is three Covid-19 cases, he said.
As the task force gathered at the White House on Thursday, the discussion of schools echoed a controversial guidance document issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the importance of schools being open. The guidance was written by political appointees in the Trump administration.
Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the head of the C.D.C., said Thursday that the agency did not recommend that schools close back in the spring — and that it was not doing so now.
“Clearly the data strongly supports that K-12 schools, as well as institutes of higher learning, really are not where we’re having our challenges,” he said. “The infections we identified in schools when they have been evaluated were not acquired in schools. They were acquired in the community and in the household.”
However politicized American health policy decision making has become, and however much President Trump’s real goal may be to shore up the economy, the administration is not alone in it views on the wisdom of keeping schools open.
A new report by UNICEF, based on surveys from 140 countries, found that school closures did little to slow the spread of the virus and did much to cause long-term harm. “Unless the global community urgently changes priorities, the potential of this generation of young people may well be lost,” the agency warned.
“Evidence shows that the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them,” the report said. “Data from 191 countries show no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”
“The longer schools are closed, the more children suffer from extensive learning losses with long term negative impacts, including future income and health,” the report said.
Some of the data seemed to contradict Dr. Redfield’s conclusion, with only elementary schools not seeming to seed outbreaks. Plus much of the evidence is observational or a result of random testing, unaccompanied by the sort of careful contact tracing that would support his assertion.