Follow the science! Open schools NOW!

What's missing from this classroom picture?(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

What’s missing from this classroom picture?(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

There’s much to learn about the unique coronavirus pandemic, but what we know for sure is that children should be, must be, back in school

Science Fact #1: The infection rate among students is exceedingly low, so low that no rational argument can support the idea of complete or even partial lockdowns of classrooms.

Science Fact #2:  Keeping children out of school and isolating them at home is  ruinous.

As to fact Number One: Emily Oster,  an economist at Brown University, reports on her broad-based study in The Atlantic:

Our data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff. That’s about 1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids, or 2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff. Even in high-risk areas of the country, the student rates were well under half a percent. (You can see all the data here.)

School-based data from other sources show similarly low rates. Texas reported 1,490 cases among students for the week ending on September 27, with 1,080,317 students estimated at school—a rate of about 0.14 percent. The staff rate was lower, about 0.10 percent.

These numbers are not zero, which for some people means the numbers are not good enough. But zero was never a realistic expectation. We know that children can get COVID-19, even if they do tend to have less serious cases. Even if there were no spread in schools, we’d see some cases, because students and teachers can contract the disease off campus. But the numbers are small—smaller than what many had forecasted.

Smaller than forecasted? That’s sure an understatement. The wilder, panicky predictions were that opened schools would become superspreaders bringing death and destruction to their homes and communities. She wrote:

Predictions about school openings hurting the broader community seem to have been overblown as well. In places such as Florida, preliminary data haven’t shown big community spikes as a result of school openings. Rates in Georgia have continued to decline over the past month. And although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, I’ve read many stories about outbreaks at universities, and vanishingly few about outbreaks at the K–12 level.

Even the recent spikes in “cases” don’t support the level of generated fear. As of this writing on Nov.19, Atlantic Coast High School near me in Jacksonville, Florida, reported nine students and one staff member diagnosed with Covid-19 according to the Duval County dashboard. That’s 10 infections out of 2,681 students, for a percentage of 0.38 percent. (No figures are given on recovered, hospitalize, ventilated or fatalities, but one can only assume that they are extremely low.) Same goes for the nearby elementary school (2 cases out of 2,511 students) and middle school (1 case out of 2,531 students).

Reports the American Academy of Pediatrics:

About 1.7% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations and 0.06% of the deaths have been among children. About 1.6% of children with a known case of COVID-19 have been hospitalized and 0.01% have died, according to the report.

Yes, indisputably if it were my child or grandchild who was among them, I’d be devastated. But as Oster said above, zero cases is not a realistic expectation.

As to Fact #2: The American Academy of Pediatrics “…strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” [Boldface in the original.]

It then emphasizes that:

Unfortunately, in many parts of the United States, there is currently uncontrolled spread of SARS-CoV-2. Although the AAP strongly advocates for in-person learning for the coming school year, the current widespread circulation of the virus will not permit in-person learning to be safely accomplished in many jurisdictions[Emphasis in original.]

That makes sense. But notice that it argues not for blanket shutdowns but the consideration of facts on the ground.

Then the statement on the website goes on to partially list the damage being done to children by being kept out of school:

…social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortalityBeyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families. The disproportionate impact this has had on Black, Latinx, and Native American/Alaskan Native children and adolescents must also be recognized. 

That, friends, is the science that needs to be followed. That science is backed up by millions of parents and their children who could create a long list of problems caused by the kids’ isolation.

We need to end the disastrous, bogus and politically motivated habit of justifying classroom shutdowns by blindly repeated the trope, “follow the science,” when it is contrary to the actual science. The cliche spills from the lips of politicians, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, of special interests like teachers unions and of ideologues and blind partisans who oppose opening classrooms because President Donald Trump is for it.

My sympathies are with the volunteer school boards, especially in the suburbs, who are suffering the pressure of lawyers who demand zero chance of legal reprisals for opening schools and of those self-center teachers unions who threaten strikes if they are required to resume real-life teaching. Yes, teachers are taking a risk by returning to the classroom, but a very slight one. Just like the supermarket cashiers, nurses and other frontline workers whose risks from transmission is so much higher.

Yes, those school boards need to protect the district from lawsuits, strikes and other threats from stakeholders. But listen to the parents who are demanding, begging, the schools to be reopened. Your first responsibility is to the students, and by ignoring their learning and good health,, you are betraying them.

Useful information for parents and others who want their schools reopened: Reopen Illinois Schools (private Facebook group).



Leave a comment
  • > Science Fact #1: The infection rate among students is exceedingly low, so low that no rational argument can support the idea of complete or even partial lockdowns of classrooms.

    Fact, all these precautions that are being taken to lower infection rates are working. Therefore, the precautions are not necessary.

    Yeah, that seems reasonable.

    > That science is backed up by millions of parents and their children who could create a long list of problems caused by the kids' isolation.

    Ah, here we go. Let's talk about some non-science and how some feelings might get affected. Didn't you just have a column about people who made these sorts of arguments?

  • Dennis, I am pleased that you are using science, but I would ask that you not do so selectively. That small children are less prone to Covid-19 illness and death has been known for a while, and scientists seem to agree on this. However, as you acknowledge, children are not immune to the illness.

    Beyond this, there is a second part to the science--children as carriers. They can infect others even if they themselves do not become ill. The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledged this in one quote you copied. And they recognized that in many areas of the nation this requires school closings. The deaths in this country have now exceeded a quarter of a million, and the rate is accelerating. Children are spreading it as well as demonstrators and party-goers.

    Problem-solving is often a selection among bad choices. Science can help sort through these choices, but we should consider all science, not just selected advocacy points.

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