Watchdog: Surgeon General’s School Distancing Guidance Was Not Science-Based

Watchdog: Surgeon General’s School Distancing Guidance Was Not Science-Based

  • June 14, 2024
Evidence for policy ranged from contradictory to thin to nonexistent.

The Covid-19 pandemic set U.S. student achievement levels back by two decades. More specifically, government policies of school closures and student quarantines did that. Many parents understood the harm these policies would cause, but they were assured policy was based on science, and designed to keep their children safe.

But how sound was the science and how much safer were children because of these policies? Sadly, the answer is not very. Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) has filed a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), regarding guidance provided by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on August 26, 2021 to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona regarding “physical distancing” to stop the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Dr. Murthy’s specific statement was that if “students maintain 3-6 feet of social distancing and are not within 3 feet of a person who has tested positive for more than 15 minutes then they do not need to quarantine.”

PPT requested through FOIA the evidence on which Dr. Murthy based his guidance. We received only a 33-page report titled, “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Prevention,” and none of the evidence in the report supports the Surgeon General’s claims about social distancing. The five studies cited in the report did not look at the effectiveness of social distancing in isolation and did not attempt to study the correct distance to use to avoid spread. One studied SARS-COV-1, not COVID-19, “in a hospital setting,” not a school setting. Another claim in that study was based on a non-peer reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association opinion piece, another referenced multiple studies in which a variety of social distances were employed with inconsistent results. The other cited studies either did not address social or physical distancing at all, were silent on the optimal distance or actually appeared to undermine the claims made by the Surgeon General.

The education establishment often points to academic research demonstrating that school suspensions, even those for misbehavior, can have deleterious impacts on student performance, attendance, and behavior. Quarantining students who have been exposed to the virus is the functional equivalent of an out-of-school suspension, and was imposed on students who had merely been exposed to someone who appeared to have been affected, even though most of them never exhibited symptoms nor tested positive for COVID-19. The use of arbitrary, unproven social distances to help determine who was exposed shows how unserious these policies were.

Within days of taking office, President Biden issued the Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking stating that “[s]cientific finding should never be distorted or influenced by political considerations,” and vowing that his administration would “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” Among the principles laid out in the HHS scientific integrity policies are that “HHS agencies shall ensure that the scientific information used to inform and support policy decisions represents the best science available,” and “HHS shall convey scientific and technological information to the public such that the presentation is accurate, transparent, and informative.”

This episode merely represents the latest revelation of an ongoing string of episodes in which, despite the Biden administration’s professed fealty to scientific integrity, these principles appear to have been cast aside or ignored. PPT has documented many of these in our Science Undermined series.

“The only thing worse than the mistrust our public health officials inspired during the pandemic is the damage their actions did to school kids,” said PPT Director Michael Chamberlain. “Federal health officials issued recommendations that resulted in students being held out of schools, causing severe and long-lasting harm, all the while hoping nobody noticed the slapdash evidence they offered in support. We believe a full investigation of this and other incidents is in order to help and ensure America’s children are not forced to suffer through such destructive policies again.”