We recently passed the one-year anniversary of “15 days to slow the spread.” We must acknowledge the substantial difficulties that continuous lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have had on Americans, particularly on our children and adolescents.
The negative consequences of full-time distance learning, decreased social interaction, and the cancellation of group sports are exponential as we prolong school shutdowns across our country.
The reality is that online learning may work for some, but doesn’t work for all. The negative impact on many students is real, but most acutely seen in our low-income, minority, rural, and special-needs populations.
For students that can access the internet—and not all of them can—many assumptions about full-time distance learning were made that proved to be wrong. For example, the amount of work it would take teachers to transition from in-person education to online education was greatly underestimated.
Similarly, for students, using a computer or tablet for recreation doesn’t necessarily translate to navigating a computer for learning, particularly for younger children. And keeping students engaged is an important part of teaching effectively, which has proven difficult to do remotely.
In fact, there is an epidemic of absenteeism. It is estimated that for approximately 3 million of the most marginalized students nationwide, March 2020 may have been the last time they experienced formal education. These students failed to even enroll for school in the fall.
Unfortunately, the long-term detrimental effects of full-time distance learning will be hard to estimate, making it difficult to understand just how we remediate these effects before they turn into long-term challenges.
Because teachers unions continue to insist that schools remain closed, we are leaving many of our most vulnerable students permanently behind. But children are missing more than the education that classroom instruction provides. Child abuse and neglect is going unchecked. And we are seeing disturbing trends in the increase in incidents of self-harm, social anxiety, substance abuse, overdoses, and even suicide.
Extended school closures are taking their educational, physical, and emotional toll on our children. And if you believe the science, there’s no good reason to keep these closures in place.
Studies show children under age 10 have lower transmission rates of COVID-19, as well as significantly lower hospitalization and mortality rates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided guidance for schools to safely reopen. And there is plenty of evidence to rely on from the real world.
Four states—Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, and Texas—have ordered their public school systems to return to class and children have been safely learning in class, some since August.
For those who can afford it, private schools across the country are offering in-person learning for months. Catholic schools in all 50 states safely reopened in August where local officials allowed it.
Internationally, places like Taiwan, Norway, and Italy have minimized school closures, and when utilizing mitigation methods like hygiene, masks, and distancing, found little secondary transmission or contribution to “second waves” of community spread.
The cure cannot be worse than the disease. We may have a vaccine for COVID-19, but we don’t have a shot that will take away the lifelong harm of keeping our children out of the classroom.
For the majority of the country, the decision to reopen schools is left to the local school boards and superintendents. But rather than resume in-person education, they have cobbled together a patchwork of programs: remote learning, hybrid and blended schedules, distance learning, synchronous or asynchronous instruction, three-hour minimums, one-day-a-week minimums … it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
As a conservative, I strongly support local control. I just wish more localities would do the right thing. Most of us know that the education system is rightly left up to the state and local authorities. But, sadly, many of those local decisions have been hijacked by teachers unions and other special interest groups.
Too often we see unions fighting to keep schools closed despite the evidence and despite additional mitigation strategies, such as prioritizing teachers and administrators for vaccination.
Instead, in places like Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, the union demanded a grab-bag of progressive priorities that have nothing to do with the pandemic or safely reopening, like defunding the police, instituting a new statewide wealth tax, and even a charter school moratorium. And now that many of the educators are eligible for a vaccine, they are moving the goal posts yet again.
We have worked too hard to reduce the impact of a child’s ZIP code on their life outcomes to allow this further erosion. What we need is a commonsense approach to reopen schools that prioritizes our children’s best interests by implementing the mitigation strategies that are known to work.
We have the evidence. We have the guidance. We have seen it work. Now it is time to work together to do what’s best for our children. It’s time for us to put children before politics and reopen schools.
Dr. Ben Carson is a world-renowned neurosurgeon who served as the 17th secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is the founder of the American Cornerstone Institute.