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Is the anxiety over New York schools reopening about public health – or politics? | Emma Brockes

There are another two weeks on the clock until state schools go back in New York, and the temperature around Covid discourse is changing. Teachers will be required to be vaccinated; the kids will be masked; and random Covid testing will continue into the autumn. Meanwhile, the test positivity rate in the city hovers at about 4% (in schools, in June, that figure was 0.03%, confirming earlier suppositions that schools arent big sites of transmission) and the vaccination rate among adults, at 70%, is among the highest in the country. Still, from some of the chatter on parenting websites and social media, you would think that sending kids back into classrooms constituted a risk of impossible proportions, with no plausible upside whatsoever.
The anxiety is real, though catastrophising is also an indulgence. Like hate-reading and unvanquishable grievance, doom-mongering is a guilty pleasure, one that delivers concrete psychological benefits. By deciding to believe that things are, have been, and always will be terrible, we absolve ourselves both of the burden of making plans, and of offering much of an account of what weve been up to. In the case of Covid, this low-key impulse towards the worst-case scenario is magnified by the much greater political forces that attend every position in relation to Covid. Anti-vaxxers and anti-mask campaigners are, clearly, the victims of various delusions, but their fiercest opponents can be delusional, too. If, to prove how pro-science, pro-teacher safety or anti-anti-vax you really are, you are willing to make the case that wearing a mask has zero effect on a childs ability to learn, for example, then you are probably motivated as much by politics as public health.
The exaggeration of Covid dangers and the downplaying of the drawbacks of public safety measures is a partisan impulse that feeds into much larger political weather systems. No point of overlap with the other side, be it around Brexit, Trump or cancel culture, is permissible. No concession can be made, no common ground sought, no ambivalence or hesitation allowed. For the second year in a row, many are anticipating that the schools will be disrupted, but unlike last year, one has a sense this time around that the disruption may be caused by the anticipation itself, a dynamic that is driven by political energy.
The starkest example of this thinking was the statement put out recently by Dr Ellie Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, who wrote a series of widely discussed and disparaged tweets in which she appeared to downplay the significance of closing schools relative to controlling the pandemic, because I paraphrase kids in the olden days didnt go to school, either. (This flatters the tweets, the most contentious of which read: Maybe all ur grandparents had high school, but what about ur great-grandparents? As many people pointed out, lots of things happened to children of our great-grandparents generation like being sent into factories to pick out bits of fluff from under heavy machinery that we wouldnt wish to visit upon our children purely on the basis of precedent.)
The whats the big deal? mode of political discourse, in which, as surely as one side claims death to be the natural result of the other sides thinking, the other side claims total innocence, is everywhere. There are huge, well-documented downsides to remote learning, most of which hit poorer students. There are less egregious, but still considerable downsides for more affluent families when the schools shut, too. Both are better than death; neither are preferable to the very small amount of risk entailed in sending even unvaccinated under-12s to school this autumn. (To date, children account for less than one quarter of 1% of Covid deaths in the US.)
None of which is to disparage parental anxiety. Everything in this climate is anxiety-inducing and our coping ability is degraded. But its not much of a solution to bask in the tiny consolation of escalating ones fears to enjoy a moment of perceived moral high ground. Its infectious, this kind of thinking, and recreational, and after a while, it becomes vaguely addictive. We could all do with being slightly less sure. Kids should wear masks when they return to school in September; and its OK to admit that this sucks.

  • Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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