Continued school closures will worsen a public health crisis

Teachers’ unions have made a list of “demands” in exchange for reopening schools, citing safety, health and equity concerns if their ideological wish list is not granted.

But their power trip will only reinforce and exacerbate the health, economic and academic disparities they claim to want to prevent.

According to Christina Ramirez, a biostatistics professor at UCLA, “the data on the risks and costs of keeping children out of school are clear and compelling: keeping children out of school is harmful.”

Medical professionals from across the world, from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, have recently stated that the risk of keeping children out of school greatly outweighs the dangers of school-age children contributing to increases in COVID-19 cases. Others, including the former FDA chair and the American Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, are also urging schools to open this fall after weighing the available evidence.

First, Ramirez points to the learning costs that will result from fall school closures.

Keeping schools closed will have long-term detrimental educational and societal consequences that could possibly last a lifetime. Gaps in schooling, such as the summer slide, decrease academic readiness in all subjects, especially in mathematics, according to the Brookings Institution. These achievement gaps are going to be greatly exacerbated due to the pandemic-motivated school closures, based upon analysis from the nonprofit organization NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association), which is projecting the potential loss of a half-a-year to one full year of math achievement.

Worse, Ramirez continues, low-income families will bear the brunt of “these adverse impacts to educational achievement.”

McKinsey research predicts that school-closure-related regression in educational attainment will be greatest in low-income, Black and Hispanic communities, with such communities suffering more than a year loss in education. This pandemic-related impact will come on top of the already existing achievement gaps that are cumulative and growing. Learning gaps can increase anxiety and diminish enthusiasm for school, leading to rising dropout rates. McKinsey estimates that an incremental 2%-9% of high school students could drop out in the wake of the announced COVID-related school closures. The loss of lifetime earning potential for these at-risk learners will carry permanent adverse consequences, effectively cementing their socio-economic disadvantages.

There are also health concerns (physical, social, and emotional) related to school closures, from increased risks of malnourishment to depression and anxiety. And economically, school closures from this past spring “seem to have hit the poorest families the hardest in terms of job loss, and the maintenance of these closures undoubtedly will cause further hardship in the families with the most vulnerable children.”

And if all these negative consequences aren’t reason enough to re-open schools, Ramirez states there is very little evidence that school closures “have any measurable public health benefit in ameliorating the spread of COVID.”

One study done in Ireland showed no secondary transmissions of coronavirus among six infected children who had 1,155 social contacts while participating in activities such as choir practice, sports practice and woodwind practice. Similar findings were shown in Australian schools. Studies from China, South Korea, Japan and Iran of household transmission clusters suggest that children are unlikely to be the source of viral transmission within households. Systematic reviews of the literature suggest that school transmission and children are not major drivers of COVID transmission. Germany analyzed more than 1,500 of its older children and over 500 teachers and found that schoolchildren do not play a big role in spreading the virus. A 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.

A large body of evidence shows that school closures not only are likely to prove ineffective as a countermeasure to the pandemic, but they also pose severe risks to our children’s welfare, health and development. The true costs of the lockdowns are still not fully known, but they are undoubtedly growing — and growing more apparent.

Choices have consequences. Are we willing to have our children pay the price “long after this pandemic has faded”?