These days, in states across the nation, public health officials are discovering more and more cases of COVID-19 among their populations. This is due to a myriad of factors, including the gradual reopening of public-facing businesses in some states, as well as dramatic increases in testing to determine a fuller scope of the caseload.
Although these larger numbers may be alarming, it is important to understand the broad array of risks and benefits involved in our policy options as the summer months lead into the fall, when students are supposed to return to school.
In recent weeks, many organizations have outlined their guidance for if, when, and how young students should return to school. Some of these recommendations may surprise casual observers of the media, given the tendency of public health authorities to be extremely risk-averse regarding COVID-19.
Last month, the Toronto-based Hospital for Sick Children (branded as SickKids) released its own guidance document. SickKids is a world-renowned pediatric research hospital and home to what is believed to be the largest children’s health research tower in the world.
The highly-respected pediatric hospital anchors its recommendations by stating that “it is critical that we balance the risks of COVID-19 in children, which appear to be minimal, with the harms of school closure which is impacting their physical and mental health.” Citing the potential detrimental effects to childrens’ development and the overall learning environment, SickKids stresses that school officials should do everything that they can to ensure students get back to an in-person schooling experience.
In its recommendations, SickKids promotes frequent screening of students, teachers, and other school staff for the new virus in order to stay on top of where people may be at heightened risk. The document also emphasizes conveying common hygiene protocols for children like “respiratory etiquette,” hand-washing within and between classes and activities, and physical distancing where appropriate. They are keen to make the distinction between older and younger children, for whom mask-wearing in school may be unfeasible because of the potential to further spread other pathogens through their environment.
Even more recently, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made a splash when it published its own set of recommendations for local school districts, promoting principles of flexibility and practicality given the particular needs of student populations. In summarizing it’s overarching principles, AAP notes that it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
They also concluded that the risks of keeping children at home and out of school outweigh the potential for increased spread of the virus by children, which is becoming understood as much lower compared to the adult population. AAP is usually a conservative and cautious organization, given its work with pediatric medicine, so their recommendations should ring clear for parents and administrators feeling weary about resuming in-person instruction at their local schools.
As state CDC offices and higher-ups in our national public health policy tread extraordinarily lightly on this important topic, these esteemed medical providers seem to agree that, given an appropriate balance of risk and benefit, the right answer is clear. Local school districts should allow children to return to school, with reasonable risk mitigation measures in place and an emphasis on hygiene.
Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner Pender Makin, in an interview with Matthew Gagnon on the WGAN Morning News in mid-June, made it clear that the state cannot force any mandate on local school boards, noting that their draft recommendations are not a “decree.” They instead merely make suggestions on how to safely begin the school year in the fall. The important thing to understand is that school board members, parents and administrators have the ultimate say and responsibility to determine how their students will resume their education.
As the Maine DOE develops its guidance for local districts, it is seeking input from various stakeholders in Maine’s public education space. The Department is offering four different surveys, one each for teachers and ed techs, school district leaders, student support staff, and family members to share their thoughts on how schools should proceed.
Because education policy is an inherently local issue in the United States, and especially in “home rule” states like Maine, it is imperative that taxpayers and parents become intricately involved in the decision making process of their local school boards.
In the last three months, we have largely ceded the peoples’ power to government “experts”—ever watchful of the fear-inspiring media narrative du jour—in determining the next course of action. It is time to look past this mindset and begin to look forward to the day when our policies strike an appropriate balance between the risks of spreading a virus and the costs of severely limiting necessary human interaction.
The costs of wholesale lockdowns on society are tremendous; their unintended consequences are only beginning to be fully understood. Children need socialization and play as crucial parts of their development. Resuming in-person schooling would go a long way to restoring stability for thousands of students and parents across the country.