We Need to Get Back to School

I’ve been hitting the right in the United States pretty hard about wearing masks and taking a cautious route to reopening. But when I started this blog, I’d said I wanted to address the way the pandemic has been handled and discussed without taking one political side. While I’ve been writing, with Donald Trump in the news every day, there have been more decisions and opinions on the right that make no sense to me than on the left. But when I saw this meme posted by three different Facebook friends, it reminded me that the right doesn’t have a corner on sloppy thinking and research:

After I stopped rolling my eyes, I decided to research the various claims and assumptions that make this meme particularly annoying. First, let me say that I think the administration’s strong-arm techniques and all-or-nothing approach are exactly what the country doesn’t need right now, so I’m not a big fan of Betsy DeVos or her “plan,” discussed here in an interview with Fox’s Neil Cavuto:

But I couldn’t find anywhere where she said that 0.02% of children would die of COVID if they went back to school. This seems an unlikely number, but let’s say she said it in private to the person who then decided to write the meme with the frowny face and the cute little pencils. The first thing that’s wrong is the multiplication. According to the Washington Post (sorry about the paywall), there are currently 56.6 million K-12 students in the US, so 0.02% of those students is 11,230, not 14,740. Splitting hairs, you may say, but this already makes me think the person who put these numbers out did no research, knowing that the people who were likely to share the meme were not the kinds of people to question the math of their political allies.

Now let’s look at the number itself. So far, out of about 135,000 COVID deaths in the US, according to the same Washington Post article, there have been fewer than 200 deaths of people under 25:

According to the CDC as of July 8, that breaks down to 48 deaths of children ages 5-14 and 146 of young people ages 15-24. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get finer breakdowns, so we’ll leave it at the total of 194 deaths, even though that significantly overstates the number, since ages 19-24 are included as well. And, as every scientist I’ve seen interviewed in the US and the UK has stated, the young people who do die from COVID generally have a known, preexisting condition. So even those 194 aren’t representative of the general population. But, you say, even 200 deaths are 200 too many. Well, yes, but have you really never thought about the risks you take every day when you are raising your child? I can assure you that your government and your insurance companies have. According to the  National Center for Health Statistics, every year, approximately 20,000 school-age children die, and approximately 6,500 of those are between the ages of 5 and 14, the same group that has had 48 COVID deaths. That 6,500 is comprised of 1,290 dying in automobile accidents, yet many of us take our children to school and shops and playgrounds every day in automobiles. We don’t scream “child abuse” at parents who put their kids in the back of the minivan for an American-style road trip. Deaths due to influenza in that age group are estimated to be about 4000, or 0.01% of the population. 184 die of suicide and 348 die of homicide. These last two numbers, if mental health experts are to be believed, are likely to rise as a result of COVID and the lockdown. This is one of the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics, not usually considered a right-wing organization, recommends that school districts aim to have all children physically back at school by autumn.

Does this mean that I think DeVos’s “plan” is a good one? No. It’s not even a plan. This is the time when we need strong leadership figuring out ways, as many other countries have done, to make sure that kids can go back to school safely. And when I say “safely,” I mostly don’t mean safe for them, because regardless of how you feel about the numbers, kids are safer from COVID than they are from things you accept every day as just a normal part of life. I mean safe to their families, safe to the grandparents who are watching them or the vulnerable sibling who doesn’t go to school because of a medical condition. And safe to the people who are working in the schools. The support workers in many of the US’s poorest areas are in harder-hit groups themselves, and until we stop the virus, we need to ensure that their lives aren’t at risk cleaning or caring for our children. My problem with the meme, other than a general dislike of people passing on bad information, is that it is not constructive. It is scaremongering. Telling people their children are at risk is a surefire way of stopping anything from going forward. Telling them the teachers or support staff are at risk doesn’t have the same impact. And the AAP is right—getting kids back to school should be our goal, for a host of reasons. I love the people who profess indignation when it’s suggested that kids need to get back to school so their parents can get back to work. “We should not be treating our schools as babysitters.” Really? Then stop expecting people on the lower end of the economic ladder to work for minimum wage—or less—so that you can buy cheap clothing or get your nails done. Where do you think their kids can go while they’re at work? And those are the very children who need to be in school if we don’t want to keep widening the socio-economic gap. Children of well-educated people who’ve been able to work from home have probably not fallen behind all that much. They miss the social aspects of school, but they can have lessons on their laptops and their parents can help them with their homework. Children in poorer areas, who don’t have their own computers, have now lost the ability to use library computers or school computers because the libraries and schools are closed. They also are more likely to be left to their own devices while their essential-worker parents are at work. They aren’t doing virtual lessons at home. I saw one story in the UK about 5 children who shared one smart phone in order to be able to access the virtual classroom. Imagine trying to do all your work from a smart phone.

Donald Trump famously said that he could shoot someone without losing his supporters. I would say that it’s just as true that he could somehow stumble across the cure for COVID himself, and his detractors would criticize it. And that is not conducive to a working society. People should be working with their school districts, Democrats should be working with DeVos and the CDC and the White House to make sure that plans are in place, including contingency plans if the numbers start to rise, so that students can go back to school in the fall. The American Academy of Pediatrics has already done a lot of the work. We should not be planning to keep schools shut and hope that a vaccine will be found.

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