It’s 8 a.m. on Aug. 12. Students flood into the Arthur M. Blank Family Upper School from the parking lot, and some sit at home on their computers, waiting to be let into a Zoom room. The students at school greet each other differently, not with hugs or high-fives, but with an elbow bump or a simple hello. Face masks are everywhere, ranging from plain blue to bedazzled with jewels. Desks are spaced out, hand sanitizer stations are at every door, and students line up for a temperature check at the entrance. It’s the day no one thought would arrive: the first day of school.
The reopening of schools across the country has been a rather controversial topic. There are problems with hybrid learning, social distancing, and even now, scientists are still figuring out how exactly COVID-19 affects kids compared to adults. But even through all this, reopening was the right decision for Pace and should be for most schools across the country.
First, the impact of the coronavirus is less widespread and severe for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as of Sept. 3, a total of 513,415 child COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were reported by state health departments, with children representing 9.8% of all cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), children (ages 0-17) represent 22% of the population in the U.S.
The CDC reports on its website, however, that the “true incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in children is not known due to lack of widespread testing and the prioritization of testing for adults and those with severe illness. Hospitalization rates in children are significantly lower than hospitalization rates in adults with COVID-19, suggesting that children may have less severe illness from COVID-19 compared to adults.”
But children can be asymptomatic, and still come home and spread the virus to adults. Schools like Pace work incredibly hard to prevent this from happening. However, schools that don’t have the funding to afford thermal cameras, elaborate hybrid learning setups, and socially distanced classrooms also are not out of luck.
The CDC reports that the rate of infection among younger school children, and from students to teachers, has been low, especially if proper precautions are followed. There have also been few reports of children being the primary source of COVID-19 transmission among family members.
There are also numerous alarming problems with online learning. According to the Northwest Evaluation Association, studies predict that students who lack steady instruction during the school shutdown might retain only 70% of their annual reading gains compared with a normal year. Students could lose between half and all of the achievement growth one would expect in a normal academic year. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, full-time virtual public charter schools found that they performed worse than traditional public schools and showed weaker academic gains for all demographic subgroups of students.
Lack of in person learning is also a problem for low income families. Low income families many times don’t have conducive spaces to learn from home, and often have limited computer and internet access, relying on the school to support their studies. A study by researchers at Brown and Harvard Universities assessed how 800,000 students used Zearn, an online math program, both before and after schools closed in March 2020. Data showed that through late April, student progress in math decreased by about half, with the negative impact more pronounced in low-income zip codes.
School gives students access to social and mental health services. Extended closures can harm a child’s mental health. At school, children feel safe and connected, which is associated with lower levels of depression, thoughts about suicide, social anxiety, and sexual activity, as well as higher levels of self-esteem and more adaptive use of free time, according to data from the CDC. Extended closures can also harm younger students’ development.
In an in-person school environment, children more easily learn how to develop and maintain friendships, how to behave in groups, and how to interact and form relationships with people outside of their family. Without school, children cannot fully develop socially and emotionally. Remote learning also ignores the difficulties for students with disabilities or developmental delays. If a student is deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or has a learning disorder like ADHD, they will have significant difficulties with distance learning.
Yes, it will be difficult. But the benefits of opening school outweigh the negative outcomes of reopening. Schools need to reopen and invest in the future generations, but only if they are able to take precautions to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.