Dr. Richard Besser: Despite coronavirus, science is NOT telling us to close schools
When schools have the necessary resources and follow strict protocols, in-person learning has worked remarkably well
Sound science, like the coronavirus itself, is apolitical. Most everything else this year — including decisions on whether to close schools — is not.
As the pandemic enters its deadliest phase to date, government leaders and school districts are having to make extraordinarily difficult decisions about whether to continue in-person learning amid record communitywide surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
New York City’s decision to close schools indefinitely, and the decision in my home state of New Jersey to allow school districts to keep them open, offers a stark contrast in how the two states with the highest death rates for COVID-19 are managing this crisis.
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As a pediatrician and a parent, I understand the fear, confusion, and even anger that parents and caregivers face today as policymakers grapple with school decisions.
We know that being in the classroom benefits children socially, emotionally and academically.
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On the other hand, virtual learning can be a sound option — and when transmission rates rise to unsafe levels, a necessary one — if a student has a computer, a good Internet connection, a quiet workspace, and no special learning needs. For millions of families without these luxuries, however, it’s an unworkable burden and educational disadvantage that many children could bear for a lifetime.
From a health perspective, it appears that most children fare well if infected, but they can still spread the coronavirus to higher-risk people in their homes, communities and yes, schools. But when schools have the necessary resources and follow strict protocols, in-person learning has worked remarkably well without accelerating community spread.
Knowing this, we should do all we can to keep kids in school by providing the funds for proper staffing, equipment, protective gear and ventilation systems. Without these supports, we cannot expect schools to remain open.
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Back in the summer, the idea of opening schools seemed like a nonstarter. We know from seasonal and pandemic flu that children contribute greatly to the spread of the influenza virus, and we feared they would play a similar role with COVID-19.
In the 1918 flu pandemic, early school closures saved countless lives, and the failure to close schools led to rapid acceleration of transmission in other communities. That’s why just a few months ago, I and other public health officials believed that until community spread of the coronavirus was controlled, schools should remain virtual.
Achievement gaps could be exacerbated when students are out of school, placing yet another burden on children of color
However, the science and data now tell us a much more nuanced story, and we must adapt as new information arrives. That is the fundamental value of rapid learning during a crisis. With differing approaches, schools have shown that safe in-person learning is possible.
That’s why New York City’s decision last week to close schools seems to be a case of following a rigid plan written before we knew schools could remain open safely. The city’s test-positive threshold of 3% — established well before the school year began — has been eclipsed, triggering closures. Yet a mere 0.23% of students in the city’s public schools have tested positive. In fact, New York schools have been a pandemic success story.
Governors nationwide are under pressure to follow New York’s lead and close schools, no matter what the data show. With nearly 200,000 cases a day being reported in the U.S., some of those cases will undoubtedly be teachers, students and staff.
However, decisions on school closures should be driven by data on transmission linked to schools and not on anecdotes or outdated metrics. Public pressure, I fear, is going to make it increasingly difficult in the weeks ahead for governors to stick to the science-based guidance on school closures.
In New Jersey, where I serve on a state commission that helps inform these types of decisions, school districts have the option of offering in-person, remote, or hybrid learning. Many of those that opted for in-person learning are still open, but the chorus of critics is growing louder as our state’s case numbers rise.
In the spring New Jersey was among the hardest hit per capita by COVID-19, with the nation’s highest death rate. But this fall, New Jersey schools have not been the problem. The state’s governor, Phil Murphy, issued a joint statement with six other Northeast governors last week that said in part: “In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families.”
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That’s the crux of why we need to do all we can to keep children in schools. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Latino and Native American communities with dramatically higher rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Because of the inequitable way schools are funded in much of America, achievement gaps could be exacerbated when students are out of school, placing yet another burden on children of color at the very moment when our nation is forging a new path forward based on racial equity and justice.
We know, too, that education is just one facet of what our schools provide. Many families — especially those with parents working full-time, one-parent households, and low-income households — also rely on schools for healthy meals, technology support, and before- and after-hours child care.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the perversion of our national priorities. We need to treat teachers and school staff like the indispensable front-line workers they are and support them as such.
At the same time, we must reject the false choice that we either sacrifice teachers or do harm to our children. In the next critical months, we must come together and follow the science so that the greatest public health crisis in a century doesn’t also become an educational crisis.