Should we open our schools this fall? That is the question thousands of school boards and fifty state governments face as we struggle to return to normalcy. The question begs different answers in different communities and in each state. I may not know each specific circumstance, but I can suggest how these decisions should be considered. I can also suggest what should not factor into any decision.
In life there are always risks. No matter what a school board decides, someone is likely to succumb to the coronavirus or to some other disease or unintended injury. This sad outcome is unavoidable. Deaths occur no matter what decisions school boards make. Different choices lead to different risks and different victims. No one can predict such tragedies. They happen regardless of our actions and our choices. The goal is to minimize the known risks while maximizing the desired benefits. Easier said then done, especially in a highly inflamed political and emotional climate.
There are three populations of people directly impacted by whether we open our schools or keep them closed. Obviously, the children should be considered. What is best for them? But schools are more than the children. Millions of teachers and other school employees should be considered as well. How are they likely to be affected? Parents and other family members also have a stake in this important decision. Their lives and livelihoods may depend on whether their children are in school full-time, part-time, or not at all. Ignoring any one of these groups could be a fatal error. Weighing the risks and benefits to each group would be critical to any satisfactory decision.
Decision are often required before we are ready to make them. The delay or absence of a decision often leads to worse outcomes than a poor decision. Waiting for the perfect solution is both dangerous and foolish. Timing is important. Teachers, parents, and children all need to prepare in order to manage the risks and organize their lives.
In addition to the children, teachers, parents, and many others including employers, governments, healthcare, and even the sports and entertainment industries will endure the consequences of schools opening or remaining closed.
Consider the children first. The benefits of education are known and accepted. What are the risks of children going back to school? A major study of 137 million children and teenagers in the United States and Europe identified 44 deaths attributed to Covid-19 through the middle of May. With therapeutics improving as physicians learn to treat this disease, we should expect the death rate to decline. There are reports of a less deadly but perhaps more contagious strain of the virus evolving. Whatever the risks of this virus in the past, we can assume the risks in the future will be lower. At some point in the future, a vaccine could resolve this health crisis completely. When this will happen is unknown, next winter, next year, beyond that?
How do we assess risk associated with this virus? One way would be to compare it to known dangers we deal with regularly. In the study of 137 million children and teenagers in the U.S. and in Europe, 1,056 died from causes unrelated to the virus compared to 44 who died from Covid-19. In other words, a child or teenager in this population was 24 times more likely to die of some cause other than from this virus. Many of these deaths occurred in homes, on highways, or in a hospital from some other fatal malady. Obviously, children and teenagers would be far safer in school this fall than somewhere else. This virus does not affect children to an extent that would warrant them staying away from school. Recent studies also show that children who may test positive for the virus but remain asymptomatic are unlikely to spread the disease to others especially if basic hygiene protocols are implemented.
Teachers and school employees are much older and more vulnerable to this coronavirus. Some have health challenges making them even more likely to become infected. What is the risk to this population? We know from CDC data that healthy adults who test positive for the virus, usually recover within a relatively short time, days to weeks. In a study of 149,781 cases in Florida through the end of June 2020, the vast majority (85 percent) were 65 years old or older. Among those adults under 65, there were 6,816 hospitalizations. This is out of an adult population in Florida of approximately 17 million. Using these numbers, an adult in Florida between the ages of 18-65 has a 0.04 percent chance of being hospitalized and a 0.003 percent chance of death from this virus. We also know that most (more than 80 percent) of the hospitalizations and deaths are people who have known co-morbidities. A healthy adult has less chance of succumbing to the coronavirus than to the seasonal influenza. We rarely close schools because of a flu epidemic. A teacher between the ages of 21 to 65 is 5.6 times more likely to die from influenza than from the Covid-19 based on 2017 data from the CDC. Furthermore, teachers and other school employees are at greater risk from accidents, cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other causes of death than from this current virus. As with the school children, school employees are safer at school than not at school, and less likely to contract the coronavirus.
School employees who have other health issues should weigh the risks and take necessary precautions, but they should recognize they are at risk at home or at school, wherever they may be. Unlike with influenza and the common cold, Covid-19 positive, but otherwise asymptomatic children, are not likely to spread this virus.
Without question parents benefit from their children going to school and these benefits far outweigh any risks. Think of the loss of employment or the expense and availability of childcare. What about parents who are not prepared to home school their children or to send them to private schools? In some communities, consider the risks to unsupervised children whose parents are working or not at home during the day. Getting our schools back to normal is a net plus for parents.
The greater community, employers, and everyone else benefits from a flourishing school, system without question.
I can see no reason why most schools, public and private, should remain closed this fall. There may be special circumstances in some communities, with some teachers and with some parents that call for other choices. My suggestion is to make those decision based on rational considerations, not on hunches, intuition, emotion, or politics. The distortions and exaggerations of the so-called free press and politicians have confused and frightened us. Ignore their insane hysterics and look at the data. Schools can be relatively safe, for children, for teachers, and for everyone else. In life there are always risks.