Covid Closed the Nation’s Schools. Cleaner Air Can Keep Them Open.

By Apoorva Mandavilli for the NY Times.

On a sunny afternoon in a cluttered music room at East High in Denver, two sophomores practiced violin while their music teacher, Keith Oxman, labored over a desk in an adjoining office.

The ceiling fans were off to prevent the sheet music from scattering. The windows were sealed shut. East High is Denver’s largest high school and among the oldest, and there is no modern ventilation system.

As the pandemic broke out, Mr. Oxman, 65 and a cancer survivor, feared getting sick or carrying the virus to his 101-year-old father. So he left the school when it first closed, in March 2020, and did not return for more than a year, staying home during later virus surges.

“We were supposed to have the windows open,” he said. “But the windows don’t open.”

Poorly ventilated spaces offer ideal transmission conditions for the coronavirus, and at the height of the pandemic, schools like East High were a searing point of controversy. An outbreak that began in November 2021 sickened more than 500 students — about one in five — and 65 staff members, one of whom died.

The pandemic led to repeated closures at tens of thousands of schools across the nation. The shutdowns sent educational achievement tumbling, disrupted the lives of millions of American families, and set off a wave of anger, particularly among conservatives, that has not subsided.

As the next presidential election gathers steam, extended school closures and remote learning have become a centerpiece of the Republican argument that the pandemic was mishandled, the subject of repeated hearings in the House of Representatives and a barrage of academic papers on learning loss and mental health disorders among children.

But scientists who study viral transmission see another lesson in the pandemic school closures: Had the indoor air been cleaner and safer, they may have been avoidable. The coronavirus is an airborne threat, and the incidence of Covid was about 40 percent lower in schools that improved air quality, one study found.

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