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Elementary students return to their classrooms

For many elementary children across the state, this week marked a return to in-person instruction as part of a rolling start process that gradually brings students back into classrooms.

Districts including Anoka-Hennepin, Osseo, South Washington County, Elk River, Robbinsdale and Wayzata are bringing back K-2 students this week, reports the Star Tribune, with the older elementary students returning to in-person learning in February.

State officials said they changed course for elementary schools because the first months of the school year have provided more insight into how the virus spreads within school buildings and the impact of distance learning on academics and students’ mental, emotional and physical health. Elementary schools, where students typically stay with one group of students and one teacher all day, present less risk of virus outbreaks than secondary schools where students move in and out of classes with different students and teachers.

Young children in particular are also more likely to be negatively impacted and face long-term academic consequences by not having in-person learning. But that hasn’t stopped local teachers’ unions from pushing back on reopening efforts, citing “safety concerns.”

While children have gotten COVID, most who test positive have very mild symptoms resembling that of a cold, according to Dr. Kristen Walsh, a pediatrician in New Jersey. The more adverse health impacts she has seen in her children patients, such as weight gain, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, “stem from school closures and families’ economic misery from lockdowns.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently found that “missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 13.8 million years of life lost [YLL] based on data from U.S. studies.” JAMA‘s analysis used a decisional analytical model of years of life lost based on “schools open” conditions and “schools closed” conditions and observed a 98.9 percent probability that “school openings would have been associated with a lower total YLL than school closure.” JAMA concluded its report by stating that “[f]uture decisions regarding school closures during the pandemic should consider the association between educational disruption and decreased expected lifespan and give greater weight to the potential outcomes of school closure on children’s health.”

An analysis of Minnesota COVID-19 case data from mid-October to December by the state’s Department of Health found

that there is no clear association between in-person learning and the county-wide proportion of COVID cases among children ages 5-19. If there is an association, it is slight, and it would suggest that more in-person learning has been associated with less COVID spread among school age children.

MDH notes that caveats to the data exist, but this finding appears to reiterate the findings of other reports and studies that schools are not the super-spreaders they were once feared to be. Unfortunately for middle and high school students in distance learning, no decisions about shifting their learning model have been made. They “are likely to remain there [in distance learning] for the foreseeable future,” continues the Star Tribune, “because decisions about learning-model shifts are still based on how much the virus is spreading in surrounding communities, among other factors.”

Data from the Minnesota Department of Health “suggest that transmission potential exists at nearly equal proportions in both the elementary and secondary grade levels for both staff and students.”

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