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COVID Crisis Post 37: School Closure Debate.

I have been thinking a lot about the school closures recently, and I know this has obviously been a huge albatross for many of my friends with school-aged children.

I spoke with my sister and family about it this past weekend on a virtual chat, and it made me realize the true extent of the issue at hand.

My sister is a kindergarten teacher in Michigan, and like every other school across the US, her school is closed. Her school district still asks all of their teachers to engage their students in virtual, distance learning, which is as hysterical and amazing as it initially sounds when you consider her kids are FRICKIN’ FIVE.

She says its been a challenge but overall it has been positive for her and, most importantly, the kids. There have been a couple of children who have not participated at all, but overall, she’s found it be successful given the circumstances.

But she also was quick to point out, along with my cousin Mona, the challenges many children face.

My sister is fortunate because she is in one of the best school districts in the State of Michigan. Ann Arbor is a very educated community, and poverty is not prevalent.

But this fortune does not apply to numerous children across the country. Or the world for that matter.

And the effects of this can be devastating not only for a child's classroom development, but also their social development, nutritional status, safety, focused care for special needs children, physical and mental health, and economic status of their household are all at risk.

Published in The Lancet Global Health, a pair of epidemiologists from the University of Nottingham stated the issue succinctly:

“School closures during the 2014–16 Ebola epidemic increased dropouts, child labor, violence against children, teen pregnancies, and persisting socioeconomic and gender disparities. Access to distance learning through digital technologies is highly unequal, and subsidized meal programs, vaccination clinics, and school nurses are essential to child health care, especially for marginalized communities. Schools provide safeguarding and supervision, and closures increase the economic burden of families using day care or their reliance on vulnerable older relatives. Working parents might leave children unsupervised or forgo employment to stay at home with them.”

Only yesterday, UNESCO revealed that 830 million students who are no longer in classrooms - more than 50% globally - do not have access to a computer. 40% of all students do not even have internet access. UNESCO pushed for distance learning, but in times where a huge percentage of the world’s population do not have access to computers or internet, especially low-income countries, and where many teachers have not been adequately trained to deliver distance and online teaching, this is clearly inadequate.

There also is debate on the effect of school closures on limiting spread of disease and mortality during epidemics, specifically COVID-19.

Some debate it could increase mortality due to healthcare labor shortages in instances where parents who are healthcare workers are unable to go to work due to child care issues. Others argue that school closures are most effective when a virus has a low transmission rate overall but high attack rates in children, which COVID-19 is the exact opposite.

So it is clear school closures are devastating. So why did almost every country in the world shut down their schools?

Because of one simple reason: though taking school closures in a bubble may show limited effectiveness in reducing the transmission of COVID-19, the effects are greatly magnified when strict social distancing measures are implemented. By doing so, it plays a very important role in severing any remaining contacts between the households of children, which then leads to decline in transmission. Children may not get sick, but they can still transmit the virus.

So where is the balance between our children’s welfare and the safety of the population as a whole?

Dr. Fauci, whose own daughter is a teacher just as an fyi, said he expects most schools to remain closed for this year, with the goal to reopen in the Fall. But he warns the teaching environment will have to change, including implementing distancing strategies and testing protocols to isolate those infected.

Whether this additionally involves PPE for all teachers, closing playgrounds, altering school start, stop, and break times, among many other possible things, remains to be seen.

We were lucky the closures came with only a couple months left in the current school year, so the impact will not be as great compared to schools closing much earlier. But that may just be a reality here in the US, and regardless, the world’s children, including our own, are suffering a great deal.

But hey, at least the kids get a break from running active shooter drills.

Silver lining, right?

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