A Health Experiment
By Stephen Tuttle | July 18, 2020
There is near unanimity regarding getting kids back to school. We all know it's important on multiple levels.
We know in-person classrooms with on-the-spot individualized instruction is most effective. We know some children, especially those left out of the digital age, will not have opened a book for six months by the time schools reopen. We know socialization is an important component of their maturation journey, and they've been isolated too long.
We also know a regular school schedule is critical for parents heading back to work and looking for daycare openings for their younger children. We're already reading about shortages of such openings, and uncertain or inconsistent school scheduling will create more challenges.
The question is no longer if but when. And more importantly, how.
We're talking about a lot of kids, nearly 51 million in 130,000 public and 35,000 private K-12 schools. More than 70 percent of those students are in primary and middle schools. Is it even remotely safe sending them back?
President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have both demanded schools start their fall semesters on time, with full in-person classes and teaching. They have threatened to cut off federal funding to districts not following their dictates.
But neither Trump nor DeVos has the authority to control school reopenings; states and their school districts determine school schedules. And public schools get about 90 percent of their funding from state and local sources. Most federal money is appropriated through Congress, and cuts to schools would never get through the U.S. House.
We do know it appears children are somewhat less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults, but we don't know why. And children are certainly not immune; about two percent of Americans who have tested positive are 18 or younger. We know they don't seem to get as sick as adults but, again, some children do become seriously ill, and some have died. Children with ailments like asthma are more at risk.
We think that asymptomatic children — and there could be a lot of them — are less effective at transmitting the virus than adults, but we're not certain.
The real problem here is there is too much we don't know about how this virus works and why some of us get very sick and some don't. We know even less about its impact on children, most of whom have been relatively isolated since schools closed.
We believe the risk of children infecting each other is minimal but reopening schools will be the first time they've been together in numbers in one place for extended periods of time. And the first time those students will then interact with everyone else in their orbit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has prepared detailed guidelines for reopening schools. They include distancing desks/students six feet (could be changed to three feet) apart, masks, no physical contact, no gathering in locations like cafeterias or auditoriums, frequent hand-washing, and more.
The average classroom in the U.S. has just under 25 students. Once you start doing the math, the six feet of distancing quickly runs out of room, especially in lower grade classrooms. And good luck keeping 7-year-olds away from each other. It's impossible to get every child back in the same classroom, as Trump and DeVos have insisted, and follow even the most modest CDC guidelines.
It's why some schools are considering alternating days of in-person classes with half the normal class. Some will be starting with combinations of online and in-person classes. California's two largest school districts announced they'll conduct online classes only the first semester. Those trying to start early to make up for lost time have already had to back up their schedules. Arizona wanted to start July 10 and is now hoping for August 17; Atlanta was hoping for an August 10 start. Both may have to retreat further.
The desire to return to some semblance of normalcy is understandable; we'd all like things to be as they were. We know getting schools open again is vital. But there is still plenty we don't know — maybe too much.
What if the reason so few children have become infected is simply because they've had much less exposure? It's not as if they went bar-hopping, attended rallies, or carted coolers out to the sandbar on Torch Lake. We aren't certain they won't infect each other after long periods in close contact. And some believe they will bring it home to parents, grandparents, and other adults.
School districts will have to ignore the blathering politicians, trust the best science, and tread lightly; creating a safe space has to be their only priority for now. We're about to conduct a health experiment with our children; we best make sure we get it right.