The deadly coronavirus storm rages. So why are kids still in schools?

The premises are flawed. 

As Covid-19 ravages the nation, the foundational statements upon which decisions are being made by school systems regarding in-person vs. online instruction need to be examined more closely.

With infection rates, hospitalizations and Covid-19 deaths now dwarfing the figures from March and April, when the situation seemed dire and schools were closed, and even as some local and state government prohibit gatherings beyond members of households, kids continue to gather in the hundreds for face-to-face learning.

The premises for continuing in-person instruction, and in some cases reinstating it to five days a week, are:

  • Maximizing in-person instruction should be society’s goal.
  • Kids are not being infected in schools at rates equivalent to community infection rates. 

However, the basic fact is face-to-face learning puts kids, teachers, administrators, their families and larger communities at greater risk for Covid-19.

Kids Are Being Infected and Are Infecting

While children might be less likely to contract coronavirus than adults (studies are ongoing), according to a November 17 piece in U.S. News and World Report:

“As it stands, more than 1 million children in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. And in the one-week period ending Nov. 12, officials recorded nearly 112,000 new cases in children – substantially larger than any previous week in the pandemic.”

So school children are. In fact, being infected. And while some studies suggest kids are less likely than adults to be asymptomatic coronavirus spreaders, “less likely” is a far cry from “are not.” Kids, like adults, can be asymptomatic while infecting others. And regardless of whether they’re exhibiting symptoms, older children are just as likely as adults to spread the virus to others.

It stands to reason, then, that at least some kids are passing coronavirus to others in their schools, families and communities.

To that point, an infection disease expert was recently paraphrased as saying, “…when students are in schools for face-to-face instruction, they are likely – at some level – contributing to the community spread.”

Premise the First

A school superintendent was recently paraphrased in a news story saying that “…keeping students in face-to-face classes should be a priority for government officials, and for the community.”

Why?

The top priority for everyone, from community members to local, state and federal officials, should be to keep people safe. The close second priority should be to slow the spread of the virus until a vaccine is widely available.

Rushing kids, teachers and staff back into schools neither keeps people safe nor slows the spread of Covid.

Given that, face-to-face instruction should be waaaaayyyyy down the list.

Premise the Second

The second baseline argument is that kids are not being infected in schools at rates equivalent to rates of infection in communities. An extension of that premise is they are more likely to contract coronavirus in the community than in their schools.

Some officials are on record saying the number of COVID-19 cases in schools do not reflect the pandemic’s rampage across communities, states and the country.

There’s just one problem with that assertion – it does not account for the fact that kids are not being tested until they show Covid-19 symptoms. Unless every kid is tested, no-one can draw fully informed conclusions about infection rates in schools. 

Meanwhile, in the Real Covid-19 World

In fairness, school officials are under intense pressure from parents and community members who want to err on the side of caution with distance learning, parents and community members who want kids in school five days a week regardless, businesspeople who want to stay open and elected officials who apparently feel the economy is more important than child and community health. Further, in too many cases and too many places, people are not doing what’s necessary to keep themselves and others safe and, as would be the result, slow community spread.

School officials are in a tough spot.

But then, this pandemic is making things tough everywhere, for everyone.

That’s why New York City schools closed yesterday, and schools have been closed in Fairfax, Virginia, Boston, Philadelphia, throughout Michigan and elsewhere. Reports suggest there will be a rush of additional closures in coming weeks.

It’s the right thing to do, even bearing in mind there can be serious consequences to 100 percent distance learning, especially for families with low incomes or disabled learners. However, with the right leadership and federal/state resources, we can find temporary solutions.

Because this is temporary. Relief is on the horizon. Vaccines are coming.

Meanwhile, the Covid storm rages as we take shelter in enclosed spaces; it’s going to be a long, difficult coronavirus winter.

This pandemic is not to be trifled with. We should take every precaution, like abandoning the rush to reinstate or expand in-person instruction until we have Covid-19 under control.

Black outlined graphic indicating copyright 2020 Martin C. Fredricks IV

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