Maybe Elsa should've been in charge
It’s now more than three years since schools were closed due to COVID. I think many of us – me included – figured that by now, school closures might be old news.
Sadly, they aren’t. The effects of those extended closures linger.
But you know where there are not many holdover effects from COVID? Norway. And if we are trying to figure out how to handle a pandemic or similar disaster in the future, comparing the US and the Norwegian response to COVID and schools is, well, instructive.
On March 12, 2020, schools in both Fairfax County, Virginia, and Oslo, Norway, closed. At that time, With the COVID virus spreading rapidly, school closures were seen as the best way to keep students and teachers safe.
There's where the similarities ended. Norway’s goal was to get students back in schools as quickly as possible. That meant they would need to control the spread of the virus everywhere, not just in schools.
So they closed bars and restaurants, salons, gyms, and other athletic facilities. They cancelled cultural and sporting events.
They tested. A lot. Anyone who developed COVID-like symptoms could get a COVID test. When the number of tests ran low, teachers were given priority access.
And when all this data was collected, it was uploaded daily. Then it was scrutinized to see where outbreaks might be developing. In those areas, even stricter lockdowns helped limit the spread of the virus.
The result? On April 27, 2020, Norwegian children from kindergarten through fourth grade returned to school. Two weeks later, all other students went back to class. Masks were not required. There was no increase in COVID when students returned to school. (A summer spike in infections likely resulted from family travel out of Norway.) As Elsa said in Frozen, their motto might have been "We're never closing them again."
In the US, the story was quite different. Michael Lewis's outstanding book The Premonition chronicles our country's terrifying lack of preparation of capacity for dealing with COVID.
There was, for example, no central source of data collection. "There was this kind of secret group of seven doctors -- they called themselves the Wolverines -- who were positioned in interesting places in and around the federal government, who had been together for the better part of 15 years and who had come together whenever there was a threat of a disease outbreak to help organize the country's response," Lewis said. Because the Centers for Disease Control had disbanded the pandemic response unit, the Wolverines essentially went rogue.
Still, however admirable the small team's actions were, they could not keep up with the cascading number of COVID tests. Which were likely more than were reported anyway, since the US did not have adequate tests.
Even after the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and the CA Biohub found a way to develop and distribute the tests for free, Lewis learned that for-profit hospitals couldn't use them because their computers were incapable of coding for a $0 test. And local health offices "were so understaffed and underequipped that they had trouble using the test kits. Most were unable to receive the results electronically; they needed the results faxed to them. Biohub got into the business of buying and delivering fax machines along with the test kits," Lewis wrote.
Meanwhile, the President of the United States continued to stress that states were on their own. In an April 2 letter to New York Senator Charles Schumer, the President wrote, "As you are aware, the Federal Government is merely a back-up for state governments."
State and local officials were faced with the difficult balancing act of getting people back to work while also keeping down the spread of COVID. As early as May 2020, states began tipping the balance, relaxing rules closing retail establishments, restaurants, and bars. No governor prioritized reopening schools; instead, all 50 reopened bars and tattoo parlors.
In January 2021, vaccines were finally available in the US. By then, schools in Oslo and elsewhere in Europe showed that it was safe to reopen schools. But U.S. educators, even after they were vaccinated, were hesitant to return to the classroom.
In Fairfax County, schools finally reopened for in-person learning in April. It was April 2021, a full year after the schools in Oslo had restarted safely.
So what are the lessons to be learned from Norway's experience?
As John F. Kennedy said, “To govern is to choose.” Governments chose what to prioritize when they were making decisions about what to close. In Norway, schools were a priority to remain open, so other businesses were closed. In the United States, bars and restaurants opened up first.
Schools can neither make nor enforce closure decisions alone. It takes a coordinated effort by all levels of government to keep schools a priority.
So OK, the Elsa thing is a little over the top. But states all made decisions about what to reopen first. And all 50 governors - every last one of them - decided to reopen bars and tattoo parlors before reopening schools. Where was Elsa when we needed her?