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Failing the children: Keep primary public schools open

The current patchwork system of school closures and hybrid remote learning jeopardizes the lives of children. 

As a product of public school education, I may be biased. I have always assumed my son; now five, would continue this tradition. Next year he will start kindergarten. Unfortunately, my partner and I both work full time and would not monitor him in full-time remote learning. 

Strong believers in the benefit of in-person learning, both socially and academically, we may be forced to enroll him in a private school, as many colleagues have done. 

It is estimated that 24.2 million public school-age children across the country are getting remote learning and have been placed in this position. 

In contrast, many private schools are open for in-person learning. Catholic schools across the Chicago area remain open with precautions in place. The Montessori school system likewise has also reopened after the first surge and remains open to in-person learning. 

Learning pods have become very popular during the pandemic, with reports of pods in New York and California. These pods connect high-income parents with qualified teachers and will only worsen already deep inequities of education access due to income disparities.  

Remote learning is reliant on stable broadband internet and access to reliable technology. Underserved neighborhoods do not have this access. Children working on laptops at fast-food restaurants or in parking lots are more common as many do not have access to the internet in their homes. 

UNICEF recently reported that three out of four students who cannot be reached by remote learning come from poor and/or rural households. 

The U.S. is alone in this policy approach to school closures.

Most of Europe, including France, Germany, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom, have all kept schools open despite COVID resurgences. They all have acknowledged the importance of educating children.

It is very telling that the U.S. priorities are misaligned when closing schools before bars and restaurants. In Chicago, bars and restaurants opened to 50 percent indoor capacity over the summer. Simultaneously, Chicago Pubic Schools continued to be closed since March, never opening for in-person learning for the 2020-2021 school year.

It was not until COVID infections threatened to completely overwhelm the hospital system that local leaders finally ordered the closing of bars and restaurants. 

Complicating this trend is that in October 2020, Chicago Public Schools reported a drop of 15,000 students in enrollment for the next academic year. This has long term ramifications and further harms a system struggling with attendance. The long term sustainability of public education is taking another possibly lethal blow. 

The science is clear. Transmission of COVID in schools is not as significant as once feared. In March, when little was known about COVID-19, closing schools was a reasonable step, but much more information about the transmission of the disease has become available in the past eight months.

A large study in Spain shows outbreaks of the disease were not associated with the school openings. Another global study found no consistent relationship between school closures and cases of infection in the population globally. School infections do not drive community infections, but the other way around, community infections drive school infections. 

Closing schools does not make sense for protecting high-risk patients. Without adequate childcare support in this country, remote schooling means extended family—if nearby and available– are called in to help. This exact population of older grandparents and relatives tend to be the high-risk populations for COVID.

The global economy has suffered from this pandemic and school closing only worsens this, with many parents unable to afford adequate childcare. Women have already unfairly shouldered the burden of childcare and COVID is poised to exacerbate the problem. 

The  U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve reported that mothers in states with early school closures were nearly 70 percent more likely to leave their jobs than working mothers in late closure states. 

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to opening public schools is the teacher unions aiming to protect their members. Instead of them focusing on the teachers’ perceived vulnerability, perhaps the focus belongs on implementing protective measures in the schools. 

There are numerous models from a variety of countries from which to learn. For example, in Germany, classes have been reorganized into cohorts to control potential outbreaks. This is in conjunction with robust testing and handwashing.

The University of Illinois at Chicago employs weekly COVID screening tests of the entire student body. Regardless of the approach, teachers must recognize the essential service they provide, which is just as important as the health care force. 

Fundamentally the intervention to debate is not school openings but school closings. Advocates of school closings need to clearly demonstrate that the risk of transmission of COVID in primary schools greatly outweighs the huge benefits of a robust education for our children. Primary schools should be the first to open and last to close as early education plays a crucial role in society.

A recent investigation reported in JAMA showed through modeling that current school closures this year might have already led to 5.53 million years of life lost for children ages 5-11. COVID-19 has been one of our generation’s worst health tragedies, but school closures are poised to become the greatest public health policy failures of our time. 

My son will be fine. He will get the best in-person learning no matter COVID-19’s trajectory, whether that education is in a public or private school, but only because we have the resources to provide that education. It is a public health failure that the educational system would not allow all children the same privilege.

Caspian Kuma Folmsbee, MD, is a practicing internal medicine physician at Rush University Medical Center with 10 years of experience treating patients with various medical diseases, including COVID-19. He is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

Tags COVID-19 distance learning Education School

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