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Dr. Anthony Fauci says keeping schools shut down for so long amid COVID "was not a good idea"

Dr. Fauci on his role in fighting pandemic
Dr. Anthony Fauci talks decades-long career, pivotal role in the COVID-19 pandemic 08:25

Dr. Anthony Fauci is reflecting on some of the actions taken in response to the COVID pandemic, including school closures, which have led to a learning loss across the country. 

The initial closure was not a mistake, he said Tuesday on "CBS Mornings," but questions the length schools were kept shut. 

"Shutting down everything immediately — and we didn't shut it down completely — but essentially major social distancing and even schools was the right thing," Fauci said. "How long you kept it was the problem, because there was a disparity throughout the country. If you go back and look at the YouTube, I kept on saying, 'Close the bars, open the schools. Open the schools as quickly and as safely as you possibly can.' But initially to close it down was correct. Keeping it for a year was not a good idea."

New York City high schools, for example, reopened in March 2021 after many had been closed for more than a year. Months later, in September that year, all schools reopened in the nation's largest school district, meaning more than a million New York City students returned to in-person learning.

Other areas in the country had shorter closure periods. In July 2020, for example, Florida issued an emergency order requiring all "brick-and-mortar" schools to reopen full-time starting the following month, even as the state was one of the nation's hotspots for the virus.

Research has shown it could take more than five years for students to completely catch up from what they lost due to the pandemic. And while students are behind across the board, the widest gap was seen in Black, Latino and low-income communities.

Data last year from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed reading skills dropped to the lowest point in 30 years among fourth and eighth graders. In math, nearly 40% of eighth graders couldn't understand basic concepts — the worst performance since testing began back in 1969.

Still, the magnitude of cases the country was facing at the time of closures couldn't be ignored. 

"When we had a shutdown, that 15 days to flatten the curve, we were in a tsunami of cases. Right here in New York, you had freezer trucks in front of Elmhurst Hospital," Fauci said. 

New York City used refrigerated trucks, many parked outside hospitals, to store bodies after COVID-19 deaths overwhelmed the city's morgues and hospitals. 

The former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reflects more on his role in helping lead the U.S. government's fight against the pandemic in his new memoir, "On Call: A Doctor's Journey in Public Service," published by Penguin Random House. 

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