Artillery Row

An abundance of viral caution

Online and distance learning aren’t solutions for shut schools

The British government’s decision not to close all schools was welcomed by millions of parents, even as the media questioned it. However, its wisdom was on display: the decision was explained carefully by experts flanking the Prime Minister, working from a well-developed and long-standing plan of action. The scene stood in stark contrast to the statement offered by the Irish Taoiseach standing alone, chart-less and doctor-less before dawn in Washington DC, although Leo Varadkar too was working from a plan that adhered closely to WHO advice.

The contrasting situation across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland resembles in a simplified form the situation in the USA but magnified by the fact that decisions have been made by state governors, resulting in a piecemeal situation that lacks coherence and solid data to back up decisions. Viruses respect state borders even less than they do national ones.

On the same day that Johnson and Varadkar announced their decisions, in the state of Maryland, Republican governor Larry Hogan stood in front of doctors from his “Coronavirus response team” and announced the first confirmed case of “community transmission” of coronavirus. Based on that single case, he had determined to move from “containment” to “rapidly mitigating the spread of the virus.” There was no talk by Hogan of moving from containment to delay, or of flattening a frightening curve to create herd immunity or preserve medical capacity. He presented his decision as essential “to protect public health and safety” and it was effective immediately.

Among his emergency measures, Hogan directed his superintendent of schools to close all schools from 16 March until 27 March.

The problem with Hogan’s decision is that he is working with an absence of real data. On the day after Hogan’s decision was announced, 13 March, around 100 tests had been carried out in Maryland, at a single lab, and there were 17 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Taking the surrounding states into account, there were 95 confirmed cases in a regional population of around 31 million. Testing was only just beginning in most of those states.

As experts have stated in both the UK and USA, the real number of those infected is certain to be far higher and confirmed cases will rise rapidly. But that is a function of the virus presenting mildly in many more cases that will go permanently undetected. Only randomised testing will produce accurate rates of infection and case fatality.

For now, Hogan has been widely praised for acting decisively and with an “abundance of caution.”

Virtual and blended learning providers achieve appalling results, far lower than physical schools.

However, was his cost benefit analysis robust? Many children from the poorest families will now be at home alone, as parents will not be able to take time off work. They would be far safer at school, since the risk of their falling seriously ill from coronavirus is effectively zero.

The closure of schools is intended to protect teachers and parents, but children will still gather and play, spreading pathogens in playgrounds and parks, fast-food restaurants and supermarkets (so long as they remain open), as they tag along their parents, or are placed in childcare facilities that present the same hazards as schools but without the education.

More than this, the very purpose of closing schools, to stop large gatherings of children and their parents and teachers, has been undermined by the immediate response of local school districts to continue to provide free meals to pupils at school locations each day. In short, children are far safer and better fed at school than at home, and if symptoms of illness became evident existing protocols would have been effective. No child with a high fever is permitted to attend school. Parents should have been given the choice to keep their children at home if they wished or were able to do so.

The radical decision to close schools may be effective at slowing the spread of coronavirus, but it is possible that the premature mitigation will result in a second wave of coronavirus infections once we begin to return to normal.

The greatest concern for most parents will be what their children are missing when schools close for an indefinite period. Schools are, after all, more than incubators for germs and providers of meals and childcare. Schools educate, and abundant data shows that only in-person education is effective for younger children and for most older children too. Virtual and blended learning providers achieve appalling results, far lower than physical schools. Moving education online is far less compelling for unmotivated students and impossible to access for many. Huge numbers of children from poor backgrounds, for example in Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore, do not own a computer or tablet (although many more may have a phone) at home.

The burden of school closures will fall disproportionately on those who rely on the school system for more than education, meals and childcare: children with disabilities and their parents. My greatest concern as the parent of a child with profound special needs is that the closure of her school means a series of setbacks for my daughter and all like her that have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), the US equivalent of the UK’s Education and Health and Care Plan (EHCP).

These plans are structured around the achievement of incremental objectives and goals, which are paced through an academic year. Every lost day is a lost opportunity. Moreover, lost days mean lost therapy and services, which in the US as in UK are delivered predominantly at and by schools.

When Boris Johnson decides to close UK schools, as eventually he must, he will perhaps have been briefed that of the approximately 11 million pupils who will be sent home, around 400,000 have EHCPs and will receive no services at home for as long as their schools are closed.

This is a minor concern, perhaps, when weighing how best to mitigate a public health emergency while also seeking to avoid a deep and protracted recession. But for the parents of disabled children and those with special needs, school closures do not just mean a longer school holiday, they mean a loss of essential services and therapies, missed objectives and goals, and so much more lost time, a precious commodity for young children with cognitive disabilities.

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