Fear first, education last?


At long last, and maybe too late, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a statement on “The Importance of Reopening Americans Schools this Fall.” After issuing warnings about potential risks to children all spring and early summer, the CDC acknowledged what has been known throughout the world for months — that “COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school aged children. … So far in this pandemic, deaths of children are less than in each of the last five flu seasons.”   

That couples with the CDC’s observation that “for children (0-17 years), cumulative COVID-19 hospitalization rates are lower than cumulative influenza hospitalization rates during recent influenza seasons.” Moreover, “the rate of infection … from students to teachers has been low.” 

The logical implications of these belated declarations are striking: If steps need to be taken to protect children from COVID-19, then those same steps are required each and every year that the influenza season arrives, a disease that kills more children, that causes hospitalization of more children and that is frequently transmitted from children to the same high-risk teachers and family members who then die, to the tune of 35,000 to 90,000 Americans every flu season.  

The CDC issues guidelines, but it is up to states and local school districts to decide. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is closing schools in many districts, no matter what the science and public health experts say. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) is delaying his final decision but declared that “you do everything possible to make the school environment safe, social distancing in the schools, face coverings, constant cleanings, and a lot of kids will stay home.” 

Even in states and districts where schools are allowed to re-open, unnecessary restrictions and requirements will seriously jeopardize our children’s education. In schools across the country, masks are to be worn, extensive sanitation practices are to consume at least one day of schooling per week, hybrid schedules will partly replace in-person attendance with distance learning, students will be required to remain separated from classmates and friends, and group activities and socializing will be strictly limited. These measures are contrary to science and defy logic — assuming the priority of schools is educating children.   

We know from research and simple common sense that these measures will seriously degrade the children’s educational experience. For one, masked teachers can hardly be effective: They will be hard to hear, difficult to understand and challenging to interpret when their facial expressions cannot be seen. For students, masks are hot, stuffy and uncomfortable, the very circumstances that compromise learning. Masking will likely adversely affect the quality of the teaching force, the people who are crucial for a child’s education. Students who have higher quality teachers are more likely to graduate from college, earn more during their productive years and avoid incarceration. 

Repetitive sanitation and temperature-taking activities subtract from the time on educational tasks that students need if they are to learn. While these may be reassuring to many, doesn’t everyone realize that screening kids for something as common in children as fever will eliminate – and force quarantines of – a large number of irrelevant non-COVID-19 kids while, ironically, missing two of three COVID-19 infections anyway, given that only about one-third of those infected have fever initially?

Worst of all, social distancing rules will disrupt regular, full-schedule attendance. If implemented as proposed by many districts, students will attend classes either on Monday and Tuesday or on Thursday and Friday, leaving Wednesday to the sanitation engineer. Districts are about to impose upon students a level of chronic absenteeism that has been identified as a major cause of student drop-outs.   

Gov. Newsom says the damage from closed schools can be curtailed by online instruction. Virtual learning is better than no education at all, certainly. But several studies have found that students who attend virtual schools perform worse than students in brick-and-mortar schools. One study comparing the achievement of charter school students found that the consequences of attending a virtual school were “uniformly and profoundly negative.”

When online learning became the norm last spring, teachers reported in an EdWeek Research Center survey that “they’re working two fewer hours per day than when they were in their classrooms. And they estimate that their students are spending half as much time on learning.”  

Another survey discovered that “just 1 in 3 districts has been expecting all teachers to deliver instruction.” Seventy-one percent of parents surveyed last May said their children learned less, with 29 percent saying a lot less, after their schools closed. Many affluent families will undoubtedly figure out how to optimize distance learning. But the CDC stated the facts often not acknowledged by our reluctant teachers — “the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities.” 

Educating is not just an “essential business”; it is at the top of the list of our nation’s priorities. The long-term cost to a generation of students of school closures, online learning and restrictive school rules is extraordinary. Most economists say that the annual return on one year’s investment in education is no less than 10 percent. If even half of a year is lost – and that scenario now seems to be an underestimate –  then the dollar amounts for the country as a whole run into the tens of trillions. Indeed, the CDC stated that “the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant.”   

The United States now stands alone among our peer nations in this willingness to sacrifice our children out of fear and hysteria. The National Education Association itself, the nation’s largest teacher union, proclaims: “Our work is fundamental to the nation, and we accept the profound trust placed in us.” Then prioritize the children, step up and open schools, in-person, so that America’s children can be educated.  

Paul E. Peterson is a professor of government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Scott W. Atlas, MD, is a physician and the Robert Wesson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Tags Bill de Blasio CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus Coronavirus Distance education Gavin Newsom Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education National Education Association Social distancing

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