Keep our schools open

By Owen Robinson, Boots U Sabers

Think back to your childhood. Maybe you were 6 years old and excited to get to school to play with your friends. Maybe you were 12 and learning that instrument that would spark a lifelong love of music. Maybe you were 17 and sweating through your ill-fitting suit as you danced with the girl who would become your wife. Those were formative years. They were important years.

Now go back into your memory, pick any year or two, and erase it. Replace it with a picture of yourself sitting at home – alone – staring at the world through a screen and trying to understand it. Hour after hour. Day after day. How many opportunities are lost? How many relationships are never formed? How is your life different?

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps through Wisconsin, some school districts have closed their doors to pretend to do virtual learning. The Milwaukee Public Schools and the Madison Metropolitan School District, Wisconsin’s two largest school districts, have already decided to go virtual and delay opening for fear of omicron. Other school districts might soon follow. Madison did announce it would return to in-person learning today. MPS extended virtual education through at least Jan. 18.

This must stop. We are almost two years into our experience with COVID-19 and there are two things we know for sure: COVID-19 is almost no threat to kids, but closing schools is devastating to them on many levels. We must prioritize the education and mental health of our kids over the minimal threat of COVID-19.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,040 kids under the age of 18 have died of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic almost two years ago. Bear in mind that the CDC’s accounting of COVID-19 deaths has been intentionally hyperinflated by including people who died with COVID-19 in their body even if something else might have killed them.

COVID-19 can be a serious or deadly illness for a few kids, but for the vast majority of them, it is no worse than a seasonal cold. To put it in perspective, in 2019, according to the CDC, more than twice as many kids committed suicide; more than twice as many kids accidentally strangled or suffocated; more than twice as many kids died of heart disease; more than ten times as many kids died from accidents; more than three times as many kids were murdered; and roughly the same number of kids died from influenza and pneumonia.

Parents should be as concerned about COVID-19 for their kids as they are about the flu. Parents should be much more concerned about their kids’ substance abuse, driving safety, and mental health than COVID-19. Sadly, by the time the CDC crunches the death statistics for 2020 and 2021, we can expect to see child deaths by suicide and drug overdoses to have skyrocketed.

While COVID-19 poses a nominal physical threat to kids, we have seen ample evidence that closing schools has a detrimental impact on their education and mental health. According to researchers at Stanford University, they “estimated that the average student had lost one-third of a year to a full year’s worth of learning in reading, and about three-quarters of a year to more than 1 year in math since schools closed in March 2020.”

According to the CDC, more than 85% of teachers reported seeing a significant learning loss in their students compared to previous years. Wisconsin’s test scores mirror the research and studies as math and reading scores plummeted after the widespread closure of schools.

It is too early to know if the school systems can ever fill the hole left in the kids’ educations. Some kids will likely be able to get back on track, but far too many will never fully recover those lost months and years. The kids who will be hardest hit are those who are already on the other side of the yawning socioeconomic gap in education and kids with learning difficulties.

In addition to the detrimental impact on kids’ education, the impact on their mental health is truly tragic. According to the CDC, nearly 25% of parents whose children were forced into virtual or hybrid education reported a decline in their children’s mental or emotional health. Kids also had worse diets, exercised less, and spent more time alone.

Closing schools is having a devastating impact on our kids and their futures, but there is no evidence that closing schools reduces the incidence of COVID-19 for kids. The rate of COVID-19 in communities that closed their schools and neighboring communities that kept them open are identical. Closing schools is politically motivated pandemic theater and our kids are paying the price of admission.

When it comes to closing schools, our kids’ futures and their very lives are on the line. Closing schools is far more destructive to our kids than COVID-19 ever will be. Keep our school open. Our kids are depending on us.

This column first appeared in the Washington County Daily News.

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