On July 17, Governor Newsom announced that public and private schools in 32 counties, including Ventura county, on California’s “watch list” are mandated to go completely online for fall 2020. According to Newsom, COVID-19 poses too great a safety threat to justify a return to school unless the county stays off this list for fourteen consecutive days. According to the California Department of Public Health, July 16, there has been no COVID death for ages 0 to 17 years old.
While Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) had already announced they would not return to in-classroom teaching before Newsom’s announcement, most of the private schools in Conejo Valley were planning to return to the classroom full time and are now scrambling to determine how to proceed with the new guidance. They now, like the public schools, could be forced to adopt only distance learning for the foreseeable future.
For academic, mental, and social reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges schools to make reopening in-person classes “the chief goal in mind.” The data is clear; in-person learning is incomparably better than distance learning. Parents, educators, and elected officials all acknowledge this. In a recent press brief published by the AAP, the data shows that academically, distance learning makes it difficult for faculty and staff to “identify and address important learning deficits,” which is essential to ensure that students are meeting the basic qualifications for moving on to the next grade.
In addition, the AAP points out that with distance learning it is nearly impossible for faculty to identify critical signs of “child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.” Faculty are often the front line of defense when identifying signs of psychological distress and safety concerns amongst their students, from identifying mental health issues to reporting signs of domestic abuse.
However, the benefits of in-person learning hardly matter if COVID poses a substantial health risk to children. This gets to the heart of the debate concerning schools’ reopening for the fall: how dangerous is COVID-19 to children?
According to Board Certified Primary Care Physician Dr. Jeff Barke, “In the young and the healthy, this virus is no more deadly or dangerous than a bad seasonal influenza.” This evidence is supported by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, who published that COVID’s risk to children is “far less than from seasonal flu.”
Barke isn’t alone in this conclusion. The AAP published that “almost 6 months into the pandemic, accumulating evidence and collective experience argue that children, particularly school-aged children, are far less important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 transmission than adults.”
Where does this “accumulating evidence” come from? Schools across the European Union (EU) have already opened since April, only a month after COVID lockdowns, and their data is quite telling.
Reinhard Berner from the University of Dresden conducted a study that evaluated the effects of the virus as German schools reopened in May. The first results from the study show no evidence that school children have a role in spreading the virus particularly quickly. “Children may even act as a brake on infection,” Berner told a news conference.
Dutch schools also reopened in early May, and according to the RVIM, The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, children “play a minor role in transmission.” The RVIM is also a major organization that monitors other schools across the EU as they reopen. Denmark was the first country to reopen their schools on April 15, and the RVIM has “not reported any negative effects after reopening the schools and are not seeing any increase in the reproduction number.”
Another possible concern is that even if children are highly unlikely to contract the virus, perhaps they are passing it along to their parents or grandparents. The data shows that transmission to adults is also extremely unlikely. When Dr. Scott Atlas, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former Chief of Neurology at Stanford University Medical Center, was asked about school reopenings, he said that “children rarely transmit the disease to adults” and the belief that they do is “totally contrary to the science,” which “has been proven by contact tracing all over the world by studies on these kids.”
The real risk facing our children is the consequences of delaying in-person classes. The AAP urges the government to engage in “serious consideration . . . toward strategies that allow schools to remain open, even during periods of COVID-19 spread.” “In doing so,” says AAP, “we could minimize the potentially profound adverse social, developmental, and health costs that our children will continue to suffer.” As Dr. Atlas says, “Anyone who prioritizes children would open the schools.”
COVID has created an environment of fear and uncertainty, and given these atypical circumstances, wise legislative decisions must be made based on data and facts.