To best abate the harm of the pandemic, give young children and their teachers the vaccine first.

Teachers are an underappreciated linchpin in our society. Getting our little kids back in school is an urgent need for them, their parents, and our future.

published: November 19, 2020 - last updated: November 20, 2020

I'll start by saying that no one should listen to me. I'm biased by having a five year old son that I'm very worried about, and I'm not an expert on this topic. A well-reasoned opposing view is welcome. But, here we go.

By giving young children and their teachers the vaccine first, we give those classrooms enough herd immunity that they can go almost entirely back to normal, without making them an infection vector to their families and the rest of society.

Why should we get those classrooms back to normal first? The crux of my argument is simple: the education of young children plays a critical role in our economy and society, and is leveraged in many other areas. Remote learning or a break in schooling for young children could have several serious secondary effects:

  • Developmental delays and trauma. Young children critically need emotional acculturation and instruction in reading, speaking, and social skills, all of which they simply cannot gain through remote learning. Setbacks in general development are extremely harmful to young children, and could create lifelong issues.
  • The education of young children is much more hampered by masks than other activities. A rich social environment where young children can fully read facial expressions is likely necessary to educate them properly. This is not only because they lack an adult's nuanced ability to understand communication, but because much of the purpose of their education is to gain that nuanced ability. I can't think of any other activity that could be so dramatically less effective with masks.
  • Because these setbacks can be severe and permanent, and can cause problems in every area of the child's life as they age, the harm that can be caused to them and our society will compound as time goes on. These harms are much more costly in the long run than other harms.
  • Young children are the least capable of properly following mask and social distancing guidelines, so infections are more difficult to prevent in their classrooms than other areas.
  • Working parents are economically crippled. Public schools act as an important childcare option for many working parents, and especially for those who aren't able to work from home this pandemic has been impossible to adapt to. Young children cannot simply be ignored or occupied with some task, and emotionally need focused attention, so working parents are in the impossible situation of being the only source of occupation for their young children while also needing to make a living. The recovery benefits we can expect from allowing this large group of people to return to a more normal working life could be immense.

I strongly suspect that this plan has the highest expected value of any we could choose. It's certainly true that medical or long-term care workers have much higher base risk, but they also work in environments where strong sanitary guidelines have always been in place, and where those sanitary guidelines don't intrinsically decrease the quality of their work. More careful guidelines don't cancel out their efforts. That's not the case in the education of young children.

We have to be safe, and it's unacceptable to allow pointless deaths simply to keep the economic engine turning. That's the reason I didn't make this argument earlier, I knew it was selfish to insist that teachers risk their lives for someone else's children. But now that a vaccine is on the horizon, we have to intelligently prioritize its distribution based on where it will do the most good.

Our little kids need to get learning again, in an environment where they can play, and sing, and yell, and hug, and high-five, and do silly dances, and not feel like they're in a hospital. I'm so worried about them, and I think all of us should be.

I hope I haven't said anything hurtful or unreasonable. I'm worried about my little boy and his mother, and this is the best I can do right now.

Thank you!