Whatever happened to flattening the curve?

Throughout the country, tens of millions of schoolchildren are starting a new academic year. However, instead of throwing on their backpacks and heading to receive in-person lessons from their teachers, many of them will be at home staring at computer screens and tablets, if they bother tuning in.

In the early stages of the pandemic, school closures were billed as a last resort, a desperate and temporary effort to “slow the spread.” Yet even as distance learning has proven an unmitigated disaster for working parents and for the social and academic development of children, here we are, six months into school closures and with no end in sight.

School closures have been the most dramatic and harmful but by no means the only way federal, state, and local governments have kept in place significant restrictions on human interaction.

Back in March, political leaders justified drastic measures by talking of “flattening the curve.” The idea was that there would be no way to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and from causing death, but the big fear was having so many cases simultaneously that the medical system would become overwhelmed. One popular graph showed a line representing the health system’s capacity. Without protective measures in place, the graph suggested, the curve of cases would be steep, breaking through capacity.

A second, flatter curve represented what things were supposed to look like with protective measures. It showed a longer epidemic, but one in which the caseload was spread out, so that even at the peak, the number of cases were within the medical system’s ability to function.

Whatever the criticisms of this approach, it at least made sense because there was some limiting principle on the restrictions. That is, there would be infections, but we would absorb them as long as our hospital system didn’t collapse.

Masks are now more plentiful than they once were, and the treatment of COVID-19 has evolved to become far more effective. In March, there was a fear that the U.S. would run out of ventilators for treating severely ill patients, but now, it turns out that those were less effective in fighting the coronavirus than anyone thought at first.

Such arbitrary and unscientific standards are being imposed in school districts throughout the country, particularly as teachers unions try to prevent anyone from making their members going back to work. In New York City, which was hit hardest by the virus, the rate of positive coronavirus tests is now less than 1%, yet the teachers unions have floated the idea of striking over school reopening plans. Already, the school year has been delayed toward the end of September.

Now that e have abandoned the concept of flattening the curve, there is no limiting principle to the draconian steps being taken by local officials. This isn’t an argument for pretending the pandemic doesn’t exist or for disregarding reasonable safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and quarantining known cases. The notion that officials should simply allow herd immunity to build up naturally is not necessarily a safe one, as it carries a different set of potential problems and risks.

It’s just a recognition that human activities, among which schools are especially vital, cannot remain indefinitely closed as we await an effective vaccine that could be years away.

Instead, we should return to the original limiting principle inherent in the goal of “flattening the curve.”

-The Colorado Springs Gazette