As Covid enters its Omicron phase, common sense is beginning to creep in. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have cut quarantine time to five days from ten days not because new research has suddenly produced a new magic number but because a ten-day interval is disrupting the country’s transport systems, restaurants, health provider networks, and economy as a whole.
But in education the capacity to balance remains far from ballerina perfect. Closed for the holidays, too many schools are floundering, acting like little boys who do not want their vacation to end. In Massachusetts teacher unions are demanding extra days off so that they have time to get tested. The state department of education has rejected their demands, but Cambridge and several other districts in the Boston area are deciding to keep doors shut. Washington, D. C., Baltimore, and Seattle school districts are following suit. More than 2,000 schools across the country are not welcoming children back to school the day after their New Year’s weekend. Nor are the country’s elite universities exempt from this sort of education hesitancy. My own employer, Harvard University, has insisted on going digital for three weeks; Stanford University has decided two weeks is enough—at least for now.
The longer this kind of education hesitancy persists, the greater the damage to the education of a whole generation of students. We now know the learning losses in 2020-2021 were large, and we now know that social isolation, if we didn’t know it from the beginning, causes emotional stress that for some can be devastating. It’s time to return to the past when people lived through diseases without ruining their lives. I only wish schools, colleges, and families would practice my mom’s rules for handling such matters, which I outlined in an op-ed on New Year’s Eve.
These continuing disruptions are disturbing, but elsewhere there are signs that some semblance of balance is being restored and we can yet celebrate a Happy New Year.
Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Senior Editor of Education Next.