Closed schools more risky for young people than COVID

As I prepared for the university semester ahead, I couldn’t wait. I was so excited to get back to teaching in person this January. But unfortunately, a few weeks ago, one of the universities I work for said classes will begin virtually, and another just decided the same thing, following many others. And I couldn’t help but think, ‘Who does this benefit?’.

In 2019, 11.8 percent of young people (18-24 years old) had serious thoughts of suicide. In 2020, post pandemic, 25 percent of the same age group had serious thoughts of suicide.

About 1,700 young Americans (age 18-24) have died of COVID-19 in the two years since the beginning of the pandemic until now; annualized, approximately six times that have died of suicide.

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With serious mental health issues among young people having more than doubled and COVID deaths among young people, while each death tragic, is statistically small — why are we closing schools to protect against COVID? Rather, shouldn’t we be opening them to protect our young people?

Many mainstream media and politicians in favor of more lockdowns have been misleading in how they have reported suicide rates. For example, if you look at suicide overall from 2019 to 2020, you see a decrease. ‘Halleluiah, the lockdowns had no effect, everyone is actually doing better in isolation’ are the sentiments touted by some pundits and politicians. But let’s take a closer look at the real statistics.

If you split suicide into age groups you see that while it has decreased for older Americans, the suicide rates among young adults (10-34 years old) has actually increased across the board from 2019 to 2020. Moreover, if you break suicide rates down further by race, deaths among Black girls and women (ages 10-24) has increased more than 30 percent, and 23 percent for Black boys and men. Suicides of Hispanic women of the same age group increased by 40 percent. This is a crisis that no one in the pro-lockdown camp wants to talk about.

The same minority groups that the pro-lockdown leadership say they so fiercely protect are the ones being left behind — and dying — by their lockdown and isolation policies.

Moreover, we shouldn’t just be looking at suicides, we should be look at drug overdoses and mental health issues overall as well.

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Drug overdoses, which are not counted as suicides, have skyrocketed. More than twice as many people aged 15-24 died of overdose in 2019 alone than have died of COVID during two years of the pandemic. And drug overdoses have only increased since 2019 — up nearly 30 percent in the past year.

Here’s the deal: Depression rates in the U.S. tripled at the beginning of the pandemic, and they have only gotten worse: from 8.5 percent of people pre-pandemic to over 32 percent of people (1 in 3!) currently. Again: the number of young Americans who have reported having serious thoughts of suicide has doubled since the pandemic began.

Shutting down our schools is just the first step in returning to lockdown, and our young peoples’ mental health is clearly at risk. 

The cost-benefit analysis, the weighing of the scales, is clearly on the side of opening schools, from kindergarten through college level — so why on earth are we not doing that?

Some might argue that the spread needs to be stopped and closing schools will go a long way to accomplishing that. But the risk of transmission in schools is very low if precautions are taken. Many universities have 90 percent vaccination rates and require masks in all indoor areas; many have installed new ventilation systems and insist on at least three feet of social distancing. Yes, some of these measures are not followed by all students, all the time, but that is why we use what epidemiologists call the “swiss cheese model”: you impose multiple different public health guidelines and while each one may have “holes” or non-compliance, when you stack them on top of each other, it works. There are many different methods of preventing the spread, but regardless we need to figure out how — because schools being closed is more risky for young people — statistically speaking — than COVID.

As I prepare to teach my classes online for another year, I can’t help but be afraid that we are devolving into emotional — rather than scientific — decision making.

Liberty Vittert, PhD, is a professor of the practice of data science at the Olin Business School at the Washington University in St. Louis. She is also the feature editor of the Harvard Data Science Review and co-host of the Harvard Data Science Review podcast. She is the resident on-air statistician for “On Balance” on NewsNation. Follow her on Twitter @libertyvittert