Education

We Can Reopen Our Schools Safely

Social-distancing dividers in a classroom at St. Benedict School in Montebello, Calif., July 14, 2020. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Open schools are vital to an open country.

August is the time of year when parents and children start turning their minds from summer vacation toward returning to the classroom and their friends at school, taking up new educational challenges, and launching back into their academic, athletic, dramatic, and musical pursuits.

This year is different. For the first time in generations, Americans face the back-to-school excitement and jitters with an additional, and serious, concern hanging overhead: COVID-19. President Trump and leaders throughout his administration have also been concerned, as they have looked at the upcoming school year not only through the lenses of our nation’s decision-makers and leaders, but also as parents themselves. They are taking both of these responsibilities very seriously as we move into this next phase of America’s reopening.

Open schools are vital to an open country, since many parents can’t afford to stay home with their kids but can’t return to work until their kids have returned to school. To ensure we can enter this next phase safely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spent the summer preparing guidelines to safely reopen classrooms.

These guidelines rely on a combination of strategies to ensure staff and student safety. First, leadership from the amazing teachers, coaches, and staff who fill our schools, to ensure that everyone follows the guidelines that will keep students safe. Second, education for the student population and their families on best practices for everything from social distancing to mask-wearing to hygiene to limiting the number of people every child encounters daily. Finally, things such as keeping facilities clean and disinfected, and having a plan in place for any staff or student who tests positive for COVID-19, will play a vital role.

The Trump administration recognizes that many parents are concerned about sending their children back to school. These concerns, while understandable, must be weighed against two things: the facts about how the coronavirus affects children and the consequences of keeping children out of school this fall.

First, children are less likely to become sick than adults. We’ve known this for months. The CDC found that between February 12 and April 2 this year, only 1.7 percent of cases were in children under 18 years of age. The CDC also found that most COVID-19 cases in children were not severe. This does not mean that our nation’s leaders are not concerned for our nation’s children, but rather that we are confident as we reopen the country that we can safely reopen schools, in part because children are handling the outbreak better than adults.

Additionally, experts from inside and outside the government are very concerned about the dangers and drawbacks of keeping schools closed this fall. The American Association of Pediatrics, for instance, noted that lengthy time away from school makes it “difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.” An article in Psychology Today similarly noted that “empirical studies suggest that keeping children and adolescents less physically active and disrupting their routine activities have negative impacts on child and adolescent mental health and physical health.”

The concerns over child abuse in particular are far from anecdotal or theoretical. CNN reported that in Massachusetts alone, “alleged child abuse dropped almost 55 percent from 2,124 in the first week of March to just 972 by the last full week in April.” Keeping kids out of classrooms will continue to make it difficult for teachers, coaches, and other adults to identify and report signs of abuse.

Then there’s the real educational impact on minority and low-income families in particular. The Education Trust found that over 75 percent of Latino and African-American parents are worried that they don’t have the resources necessary to help their children stay on track academically if they can’t return to school. Many are also concerned that they lack the ability to actually access distance-learning programs due to a lack of Internet or connectable devices in their homes. And advocacy group ParentsTogether found that low-income families were ten times more likely than their wealthier counterparts to say that their children were doing little to no remote learning during the pandemic.

Thankfully, these consequences are not inevitable because we have the resources and instructions on hand today to safely open schools. Under President Trump’s leadership, America is leading the world on coronavirus testing, clearing red tape to allow the private sector to innovate and address shortages in personal protective equipment, provided paycheck protection loans to small businesses in record time, and currently identifying and creating a vaccine for COVID-19 at warp speed. We are taking a whole of America approach to this virus, and together, we can reopen our schools safely.

Alyssa Farah is the White House Communications Director and an Assistant to the President. She has previously served as the Pentagon Press Secretary and a Deputy Assistant to the Secretary is Defense, Press Secretary to Vice President Mike Pence, and Spokeswoman for the House Freedom Caucus.

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