As regional pediatric leaders, we recently wrote that in-person school is essential. As our communities continue to struggle with COVID-19 infections, we note that additional data continue to support that children can return safely to the classroom, and that delaying this has significant long-term consequences.
Children are suffering
As clinical leaders of our region’s only Children’s Hospital, we continue to see the negative physical and emotional impacts of social isolation on our childrens’ health. Injuries due to lack of supervision, suicide attempts and eating disorders continue to increase in our pediatric patients. Child abuse is going unrecognized because teachers are unable to see children. In addition, the wide gap between available mental health resources and the mental health needs of our children, compounds the risk and long-term impact of our society’s choice to value other activities over school.
Children are literally failing
Data from the first semester of this school year show an 83% increase in middle and high school students receiving two or more “F’s” in classes, with English language learners and students with disabilities more than double the past year. Other school districts report 47% of their students have at least one failing grade. Students are less engaged, with even the most motivated students losing critical thinking skills. Dropout rates are increasing as children fail to see the value of remote learning, and these teens are unlikely to return to school. These effects will be long lasting for our children, and will disproportionately affect high-risk groups including students with special needs, English language learners, and those from families with limited resources.
Opening schools does not increase community COVID rates or hospitalizations
Recent reports from the CDC demonstrate COVID-19 incidence in counties where K–12 schools offer in-person education (401.2 per 100,000) was similar to or lower than that in counties offering only virtual/online education (418.2 per 100,000), and a recent study found no increase in COVID-19 hospitalization rates associated with in-person education. “Schools provide a structured environment with mitigation measures which may help prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19”. (MMWR Jan 13, 2021).
Closed schools are not keeping children and staff ‘safe’
The highest rates of COVID transmission are within households, not in schools, by orders of magnitude. In Massachusetts, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, 19,931 clusters of COVID cases were related to household exposures, compared to 30 related to schools, including public, parochial and boarding schools. Staying away from school does not prevent transmission. In a large study of 397 students in Mississippi of whom 154 tested positive for SARS-CoV2, attending school in person did not increase the risk of testing positive for the virus compared to those who remote schooled.
Classroom surfaces are not contaminated
A report in the Lancet (Goldberg, Aug 2020) concludes that the risk of contracting the virus from contaminated surfaces is quite low, even in hospital rooms of patients with active COVID infection. The implication for schools is significant in that the classroom is not a “dangerous” place with virus lurking on every surface.
Our children are not OK
As we near the one year anniversary of shuttered schools, it is imperative for the well being of our children and families that students be brought back into the classroom. There is now overwhelming evidence that in-person education with simple measures such as masking, physical distancing, and frequent hand washing does not increase risk of COVID-19 infection for students, for teachers or for the community. Postponing return to school until community immunity is achieved, as some advocate, vastly undervalues the well-being of our children and families given the now substantial evidence of harm with remote-only learning. We ask parents and decision-makers to prioritize our children’s education, their mental and physical health, and their future.
Christine McKiernan, MD FAAP, is chief of Pediatric Intensive Care at Baystate Children’s Hospital. Joeli Hettler, MD, is chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Baystate Children’s Hospital. Mary-Alice Abbott, MD PhD, is vice-chair of Pediatric Specialties at Baystate Children’s Hospital
This content was originally published here.