“Are schools safe?” is the wrong question to be asking

Image of mask-wearing students in a classroom.

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Is it safe to open schools? From the moment it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had set up shop in the US, answers to that question have been scrutinized, analyzed, and even politicized. Lost in all of this is the realization that it’s a terrible question—because there’s no single answer to it.

Instead, any answer to that question only applies to individual communities and, in many cases, individual schools. It’s also subject to change with the evolving dynamics of the pandemic, including the appearance of new variants. Fortunately, a detailed understanding of why the question is bad can help people understand which questions they should be asking instead.

Schools are part of a community

A couple things that are relevant to school safety have become clear over the course of the pandemic. One is that school-aged children are the least likely to be hospitalized or die of any age group tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of the over half-million COVID-19 deaths in the US, only a few hundred have been kids under the age of 17. In addition, in a few cases where new infections were tracked in detail, schools that adopted adequate safety measures saw lower infection rates than the surrounding community.

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