Phillip Rozeman: The case for children in the classroom

Over the last few weeks, there has been significant media coverage on the question of reopening schools. These stories are pretty comprehensive in covering the potential negative consequences of school reopening but don’t cover well the positive evidence behind our governor, school superintendents, and the American Academy of Pediatrics decision to promote the return to in-school learning.

Although we know there is much to learn about COVID, there is good news for parents concerning getting back to school. Amid all the heated arguments and rhetoric, there is more scientific evidence and real-world experience to support opening school buildings than the amount of evidence available on many other key COVID questions. The current evidence is consistent and allows our policy leaders to chart a path to in-school learning this year.

From a health perspective, children are significantly less impacted by the virus than adults. The vast majority of children suffering with COVID are less symptomatic than when infected with other respiratory childhood illnesses.  Out of 45 million children in our country that are less than 15 years of age, only 28 have died from COVID-19 and most have preexisting medical conditions.  Literally, mortality with children diagnosed with COVID is a one in a million occurrence.

To put in in perspective, there were 190 children who died form influenza and pneumonia in 2016, 625 died from homicide, and nearly 3,000 children from accidents.  Children under 14 are between one-third to one-half as likely as adults to contract the virus.

A second piece of evidence supporting in school learning is the real world experience of reopening schools in Europe. Most European countries reopened K-8 schools in April and May and their experience has been positive regardless of differences in mandated safety practices in each country. France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium have similar or worse COVID-19 mortality rates as the United States and each has successfully reopened schools.

The consequences of reduced in-school learning will likely be significant. Virtual learning did not meet our expectations in the spring and though we can expect improvement this year, the gap between in-school and virtual learning is likely to still be present. Because that gap is likely to be greater in low income demographics, any decrease in the number of children choosing in-school learning could result in increasing the achievement gap between low and higher income children.

The consequences of less in-school learning goes beyond academics. Over 30 million children have breakfast and lunch at schools every weekday. The American Academy of Pediatrics summarized the case for in-school learning as follows: “Lengthened time away from school and associated interruption of supportive resources often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical and sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.”

Children are social animals and in-school learning provides important extracurricular and social opportunities diminished in a virtual setting. Social interaction with other children their age is important and affects future competence in the areas of paying attention, acquiring language, and getting along with others.

Every one of us have a small number of special caring teachers who made a difference in our lives. In many ways, we limit the impact of our great teachers when we limit in-school learning. The encouragement and mentoring role of those teachers is going to be limited in virtual learning.

The absence of in-school learning also has implications beyond children issues. The opening of schools aid families and the community as a whole by making it possible for parents to return to work. Realistic expectations will mean balancing the dual health and economic crises of COVID, knowing that the long-term health and cost of economic ruin are likely to be at least as important as the health consequences of the virus. The importance of open school buildings to families and community can’t be overstated.

This week, Caddo Parish reopened school doors to over 37,000 children. The school system has worked with local public health experts using guidance from the CDC and Louisiana Department of Education to build new safety protocols and instructional models to meet the needs of our families.

Despite this herculean effort to provide safe in-school learning in our community, more than half of Caddo Parish students have elected to stay home and participate in virtual learning instead of returning to the classroom on day one.

For many in our community, the only definition of a safe environment is the total eradication of the virus.  The truth is people can and will continue to get sick from COVID-19 like they do with other viruses. Some of those infected will be in schools.

Our future includes both continued advancement in our understanding of prevention and treatment of COVID and a return of children to school.  We just have be open and adapt.

If we have realistic expectations and  we weigh the benefits and risks and what we have learned about COVID, we can support our governor, school superintendents, principals, teachers, and school workers in their efforts to provide in-school learning for our children.

As always, we are in this together. We pray for the flexibility and judgment of our leaders as they remain vigilant, thoughtful, and careful.  As noted by national columnist Kathleen Parker  in The Times: “Children need to be in school; parents need to return to work; and the world needs to keep turning”. Fear should not overwhelm us.

Dr. Phillip Rozeman is a practicing cardiologist.  He is co-founder of the Alliance for Education, Education’s Next Horizon, SBA for Higher Education, and the Shreveport Charter Foundation.