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FEATURE OP/ED: Schools Must Be Opened For Merced’s Children

The certain risk that children will suffer from sustained school closure far outweighs the minimal benefit to adults of keeping schools closed.

By SIMI ASADI,  ANGELA SETO & SHANE SMITH

Yes, we can safely open schools — and keep them open — when public health officials allow children back on campus. Our understanding of how the COVID virus spreads and how it does not can allow grown-ups to resume their firsthand role as kids’ protectors and educators. We ask all Mercedians to focus their attention on the wider harm that a childhood on lockdown brings to our kids and our community, and to recognize that there is a path to school reopening if we adopt a reasoned approach to life in a pandemic.

Why is a mindset of informed resolve so critical?  Because the harm to our children keeps mounting.  And the virus shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon.

During a normal school year, educators connect with children to assure their education and well-being. Lessons are delivered by trained professionals in a place equipped for learning. Students’ academic progress is monitored on a daily basis, and their emotional development progresses through social interaction with friends, teachers, and countless others.

But schools today shoulder many more burdens. Regular attendance on campus provides a setback against child abuse by allowing teachers to observe and report harm to their students. Social workers and mental health counselors help children cope with the challenges of their home lives, some of which are horrific. Children are fed daily meals, and too many kids hear the only kind and supportive words they will encounter all day.

In short, schools are places where children thrive as their needs are met. Schools are safe places for children and teens. When we allow the virus to force our schools to close, whether out of well-intended caution or out of fear, we shutter the one place where our society ensures that all children are safe and nurtured regardless of their background.

That matters. Even in good times too many children face challenges at home. As lost jobs and ongoing uncertainty raise stress levels among the adults in children’s lives, we hear more and more anecdotal reports of child hunger, despair, neglect, and abuse. Essential workers in Merced’s agricultural and health care industries are forced to leave young children at home to care for even younger children. We must recognize that those realities define the school closure environment in which many children have been living since mid-March when the state directed our campuses to close with little notice.

We must also recognize that “distance instruction” assumes that kids have sufficient access to technology-competent adults and a home environment in which they can learn. That just is not the case for many of Merced’s kids. And even in households that are not troubled by violence or substance addiction, continued reliance on online education transfers a heavy burden from schools to workers in industries (e.g., healthcare, food production, public safety) for whom staying home indefinitely is simply not an option. Those burdens are even greater when remote teachers cannot interact with their students in real-time while parents must figure out how to guide instruction themselves (or not).

Fortunately, we are not stuck with these problems. We can confidently re-open schools for two reasons.

First, unlike the seasonal flu, COVID-19 is not a pandemic of childhood. Kids typically account for more than half of influenza cases. Yet epidemiologists studying clinical records from Europe, for example, found that children less than 18 years-old account for roughly 1 percent – 3 percent of infected individuals.

Children also seem to develop less severe COVID-19 symptoms overall, and available evidence suggests that child-to-adult transmission is uncommon. Those observations may follow from kids’ developing immune systems, reduced viral replication in children, or both.

This means that kids are not the main drivers of this pandemic. Indeed, other studies conclude that school closures in China and Europe had only a marginal impact on disease transmission. And we have seen daycare centers and preschools operate in many parts of our country, including in Merced County, without significant, uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID-19 because well-developed safety protocols can be and are followed.

Second, steps can be taken to safeguard the grown-ups who are essential to a re-opened campus.  For instance, physical interaction among adults can be significantly limited; students can be organized into self-contained units (or “cohorts”) taught by a small number of socially-distanced adults; campus entry can be contingent upon daily symptom checks; classroom sanitizing and hand washing protocols can be implemented and enforced; masks or face shields can be worn; teachers and school staff in higher risk groups can be re-assigned to off-campus roles.  These and other safety measures have been developed by state and Merced County health authorities based upon our scientific understanding of the virus. Read more about them on the Merced County Office of Education website at:  www.mcoe.org/deptprog/super/Pages/School-Guidance.aspx.

Our call for re-opening Merced County schools does not come without a sobering awareness of the seriousness of COVID-19, particularly for the elderly and those with existing health conditions. We also understand that the risks for children, teachers, and school staff are not zero. Heroic educators returning to campus will need our protection and profound gratitude. And we agree that school districts should continue to provide families with the option of full distance instruction even when schools re-open.

What troubles us, and what we believe troubles most in our community, is the ease with which we have turned a blind eye to the harm school closure has done to children. Merced cannot look away any longer. The certain risk that children will suffer from sustained school closure far outweighs the minimal benefit to adults of keeping schools closed.

We call on everyone to take ownership of reducing community transmission of the virus so that schools can be in a position to re-open as soon as possible. We also call on you to let go of destructive narratives that say there is nothing we can do but hide. If we are asking adults to show courage for the sake of children, then so be it. You can do this. We can re-open schools together.

Sima Asadi, M.D. is Chair of Pediatrics at Mercy Medical Center Merced. Angela Seto is a lifelong Merced resident, small business owner, and a product of Merced public schools. Shane Smith, Ph.D. is a local attorney and Merced City School District Trustee. All are parents of school-age children.

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