Opinion: If we’re guided by facts, not fears, schools should open and stay open

Parents and their children line along 10th Street N.E. near Piedmont Park on  Sunday, December 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Parents and their children line along 10th Street N.E. near Piedmont Park on Sunday, December 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Two education researchers say benefits of in-person learning outweigh risks of COVID-19

Two education researchers present a case for keeping schools open even as the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 ramps up and creates spikes in infections.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and a former school board member. David Marshall is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Auburn University, and editor of a forthcoming book “COVID-19 and the Classroom: How Schools Navigated the Great Disruption.”

By Robert Maranto and David Marshall

As the new delta variants of COVID-19 spread across the nation, educators and parents increasingly talk about keeping physical schools and even colleges closed this fall. These views have less to do with facts than with wildly overstated fears spread by the media and social media. Physical schools must reopen, and can do so safely, as they did in Europe a year ago.

Here is why. First, school lockdowns have not been demonstrated to be an effective mitigation strategy. Research from scholars at Tulane University found that reopening schools did not have an impact on hospitalizations. Similarly, researchers with New York City’s public schools found no association between in-person learning and the city’s case positivity rate.

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Dr. Robert Maranto

Dr. Robert Maranto

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Dr. Robert Maranto

Closing physical schools has taken a huge toll on students, and their families. As many have pointed out, school closures and other lockdown-related policies have increased negative health outcomes and deaths in children and adolescents.

Unfortunately much of the conversation around closing schools is narrowly focused only on consequences brought on by the virus itself — and not the totality of health outcomes. As a result of lockdown-related policies including school closings, we have seen large increases in suicides, drug use, drunk driving, and missed doctor’s visits, as well as diminished mental health among our youth, all without clearly saving people from COVID.

Closing physical schools has also led to huge learning losses, concentrated among the most disadvantaged students, some of whom may never catch up. It is a cruel irony that many who claim to care about inequity argue for keeping physical schools closed.

Generally, we see both official and public decision-making on the COVID-19 pandemic as driven by two fears — neither of which reflect facts.

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Dr. David Marshall

Dr. David Marshall

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Dr. David Marshall

Many greatly overestimate the danger COVID-19 poses for students. A recent Georgia case, in which a 5-year old tragically died of the illness, received enormous media attention. Similarly, each Friday for the past year the highly respected “PBS NewsHour” has featured brief biographies of those killed by COVID-19, often presenting children as victims despite the extreme rarity of such deaths. Given these portrayals from respected media sources, it is not surprising that many parents fear that COVID-19 may strike down their school-aged children.

Luckily, statistics show that parents have little to fear. Using California Department of Health data, as of May 5, children under 18 account for 22.5% of California’s population but a total of only 18 individuals among the state’s 60,927 COVID-19 deaths. Those under 35 accounted for 46.8% of the population but just 1.4% of deaths, while their parents and grandparents 65 and over account for 15.7% of population, but 73.4% of COVID-19 deaths. In short, students and younger teachers likely face less danger from COVID-19 than they do from flu in an average year, and no one has ever seriously argued that schools close on account of the flu.

This remains true despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Largely since COVID-19 rarely kills or incapacitates those who have been vaccinated, and most vulnerable (older) people have now had a vaccine, daily deaths from COVID-19 in California in July have remained roughly 98% lower than at the pandemic’s peak. Deaths and serious illness remain extremely rare among the young (Tracking COVID-19 in California - Coronavirus COVID-19 Response). Under 7% of California’s COVID-19 fatalities are under age 50, with virtually no school aged children.

(In Georgia, of the more than 18,600 people who have succumbed to COVID19), 11 were children, state Public Health Department records show. Nationwide, 335 of the roughly 600,000 people who have died from COVID-19 were under 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Just as the dangers of COVID-19 have been overstated, particularly for young people, so have the dangers associated with the vaccines. Studies by the CDC of more than 14,000 subjects find serious adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine to be extremely rare, only slightly more common than in the control group which received a placebo (Reactions and Adverse Events of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine | CDC). By any measure, for the vast majority, not taking a vaccine is far riskier than taking it.

America is a big country. With 330 million people, someone will be harmed by a vaccine and a school-aged child will die of COVID-19 — and each of these represents a tragic event. Yet fear of these incredibly rare events should not drive public policy. Schools should reopen and with few exceptions, and people should get vaccinated.

It’s time to embrace COVID-19 school policies and practices that make sense, instead of making a bad situation worse. For more than a year, we have been told that we should follow the science. A good first step would be to follow the facts.

The authors of this guest column, Robert Maranto and David Marshall, are education researchers and professors.