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In-person learning is an essential business, but if schools are going to remain closed, parents shouldn’t be forced to pay for them

The start of the 2020 school year is just around the corner. Because reopening plans are based on COVID-19 case rates, several districts have had to change the model of learning they hoped to start the fall with. But there are also districts cleared for in-person learning that have decided to use a more restrictive model, opting for distance learning only.

This is unfortunate. There is a compelling case for reopening schools—not only to prevent academic disparities from widening, but also to reduce economic and health disparities. And the science agrees. The risks and costs of keeping children out of school outweigh the dangers of school-age children contributing to increases in COVID-19 cases, according to Christina Ramirez, a biostatistics professor at UCLA.

As a teacher who caught all the bugs my students brought to class, I understand there is concern that reopening schools could result in students transferring the coronavirus to family members and educators. But not only do children face a low risk of contracting the virus to begin with, they are also far less likely to die from it compared to influenza, pneumonia, homicide, cancer or accidents. And there are multiple systematic reviews that suggest school transmission and children “are not major drivers of COVID transmission.”

study done in New South Wales, Australia, examining 18 reported COVID cases (nine students and nine teachers) and 863 contacts, found only two secondary infections and uncovered no evidence of any children infecting teachers.

Iceland conducted a population-based study of over 10,000 people and did not find a single child under 10 who was positive. A June 23 study by Institute Pasteur found that children in school were more likely to be infected by their parents, and that those students did not transmit coronavirus to their teachers or other students.  The Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare and the Swedish Public Health Authority conducted a joint study of Swedish schools (which did not close) and Finnish Schools (which reopened on May 13), comparing transmission among children and infection rates of teachers versus other professions in the two countries; the study concluded that closing of schools “had no measurable direct impact on the number of laboratory confirmed cases of school-aged children in Finland or Sweden,” and also found no increased risk of contracting COVID for teachers in either nation compared to those risks for individuals in other professions.

Regardless of what learning model districts choose, they are required to provide distance learning for any family who requests it. But what about the other way? What about families whose school is using distance learning but the family would prefer their child receive in-person instruction because distance learning didn’t work for that student? Shouldn’t they be able to access alternative learning options outside of what the district is choosing?

Absolutely.

If parents had control over their children’s education funding, they could pursue any number of alternative learning models. But with the state controlling each student’s education dollars, the unique needs of families will be impacted, and health, economic and academic disparities risk being exacerbated.

Gov. Walz and other state leadership could help all families access the learning environment that works best for their students through emergency Education Savings Accounts that could be paid for through the federal CARES Act funds Minnesota received. That way, parents aren’t forced to pay for closed schools or an inadequate online education and financial barriers don’t prevent students most in need of a new learning environment from accessing private schools, religious schools, or innovative options such as micro schools or learning pods.

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