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Artillery Row

Reopening schools: the case against remote education

Keeping schools closed is more harmful to children than coronavirus could ever be

It has been clear since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that children do not contract severe infections and do not easily infect others. Therefore, the decision to close schools to curtail community transmission was always about protecting teachers and their families. The latest research suggest that teachers are far more likely to bring Covid-19 into the classroom from home than contract it from children, but in the event that they infect their pupils it will do them little harm.

At the peak of the crisis and before effective medical interventions were clarified, every measure to slow the spread of Covid-19 could be justified, including school closures for older children, although the efficacy of closing primary schools was widely questioned. In Sweden, as is now well known, schools for the youngest were never closed. In the UK, to the credit of the government and its advisers, schools remained open for children of essential workers and those with special needs. Moreover, the youngest children were returned to schools across England on 1 June for a mini summer term.

The return of 1.6 million children, and 520,000 staff, to schools for two months offered Public Health England (PHE) the opportunity properly to study coronavirus transmission in multiple education settings between children, between children and adults (teachers and other staff), and between adults. The results are an absolute vindication of the policy of reopening schools, provoking the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser, Prof. Chris Whitty, to observe that “Missing school is worse than the virus for children”.

For many in the UK, what is “safe” is determined by fear and politics

According to the PHE study, there were 198 confirmed Covid-19 cases among the more than two million students and staff who attended English schools during June 2020. 128 staff were infected and 70 children. One adult was hospitalized, but none of the children. Moreover, the data suggests that infections of children took place at home more often than in the school setting, with adults far more likely to infect children than vice versa. Eighteen children were infected at home, and 17 at school by adults. There were only two (yes, two) suspected infections of a child by another child in a school setting. Most infections of staff took place not at school but at home.

Infections in schools correlated very closely with local outbreaks, suggesting that there is little to no risk of outbreaks in schools where community transmission outside schools is low. Schools in high-risk areas were kept closed, and there was no requirement that concerned parents send their children to school. Moreover, while distancing measures were taken in schools, and children were kept to year-group “bubbles”, there was no requirement that children wear facemasks.

Two key recommendations of the study deserve careful attention. First, “given what is known about the detrimental effects of lack of access to education on child development, [school closures] should probably be considered only in extremis by comparison with other lockdown measures.” Second, “Staff members need to be more vigilant for exposure outside the school setting to protect themselves, their families and the educational setting.”

The notion that school settings have to be completely safe before children and staff return has always been an impossible bar to cross. Nowhere is completely safe and it never will be, even if and when a vaccine is widely deployed. But for many in the UK and, especially, in the USA, what is “safe” is determined by fear and politics.

Recommendations for a swift return to actual, not virtual or hybrid, schooling have come in swift succession, with the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) advocating strongly “that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school”. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also stressed the importance of reopening schools. They highlight “the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant. Further, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities.”

The AAP and CDC have both published detailed guidelines on how schools can reopen safely. The CDC guidelines go far beyond anything recommended or undertaken in the UK, suggesting upgraded ventilation and air filtration, flushing water delivery systems, installing partitions and mask-wearing for young children. In their thoroughness, they have proven counter-productive, offering ammunition to those who oppose a return to school before it is “safe”. Teaching unions are adamant that there is not adequate time and funding to implement these recommendations. From New Jersey and New York to California, and even in the military, teaching unions have set an impossible bar to reopening schools, insisting on virtual education.

The failure to reopen schools when it is safe to do so will scar a generation of children

School districts have caved to this pressure, with superintendents supporting the demands of their unionized members above the interests of their students. Maryland is a case in point. On 3 August, state governor Larry Hogan issued an emergency order prohibiting blanket closures of private schools. However, he continues to insist that the education of the vastly greater number of public school students be left to superintendents like Darryl L. Williams, who has determined that none of the 115,000 students in his school district, Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), can return to school before February 2021. That will be a full year since they last set foot in the classrooms. Williams feels it would be wrong even to reassess this decision before 29 January 2021.

The only justification for this determination to keep schools closed for a year, as presented in the BCPS “reopening plan”, is that the total number of Covid-19 cases in Baltimore County up to 16 July was 9,153. No mention is made of the fact that the county has achieved all the metrics for reopening set out by the CDC, the State Governor’s Office, the Maryland Department of Health, and the Maryland Department of Education. For his outstanding leadership in this matter, Williams receives an annual salary just shy of $300,000.

The BCPS solicited 52,000 responses from students, parents, teachers and others about reopening schools, which reveal clearly the reason for schools remaining closed. It has nothing to do with parents and students, who opted overwhelmingly to return to school fully in person or with some remote learning (Students, 74%; Parents, 64%), and everything to do with teachers wishing to remain at home and offer fully virtual (43%) or hybrid (35%) classes. As a joint letter from the three largest teaching unions in Maryland reveals, in July 2020 teachers had no intention of returning to their classrooms this year. The letter’s mendacious conclusion is that “We must rise above politics and focus on the reality and complexities of safely reopening schools”.

The Public Health England study shows that schools can be reopened safely without the raft of demands outlined in the Maryland union letter, or even those recommended by the CDC and AAP. There are half as many public-school students in the whole of Maryland as returned safely to English schools in June. Covid-19 metrics in the UK at that time were far worse than is currently the case in Maryland, where numbers are at their lowest since before schools closed in March. As I wrote in March, the rush to close schools was neither necessary nor timely, and the failure to reopen when it is safe to do so will scar a generation of children.

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