As a public school educator, its troubling for me to witness the rather myopic view many Californians continue to hold regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
This pandemic did not just affect Californians, it also affected billions of humans across the globe. In fact, 1.5 billion school-age children were sent home from their classrooms between February and April last year due to the pandemic.
Of those, 56.4 million of these children were in the United States with 50.8 million of them attending a public school. Roughly 6 million of these children are California students.
What has happened to these 6 million public school children in California during the past 11 months?
The regional variations regarding in-person versus virtual learning has now created an inequitable and troubling U.S. educational system. For example, Texas and Florida began offering full-time, in-person learning to all grades for more than 75 percent of their students by October last year.
California, in contrast, still had 90 percent of its students learning online last October.
Clearly, U.S. politics has played a significant role in school closures.
This fact becomes even more disturbing when one considers the global way in which other nations addressed educating their children during the pandemic. These nations did not indefinitely close their schools. They actually took the opposite approach.
While realizing that obstacles would continue to emerge and that COVID-19 surges would ebb and flow, European and Asian leaders led their countries with in-person learning being a top priority.
By doing so, Europe and Asia largely stayed clear of controversy from parents or teachers about reopening schools after the springs initial COVID-19 wave or whether to keep schools open or closed as the virus returns.
European countries followed the scientific evidence and advice from experts who contended that the public health risks of keeping children out of school were serious. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to say, There will be dramatic social consequences, if schools are closed.
Instead of closing public schools, Germanys bars, restaurants, theaters, concert halls, gyms and tattoo parlors were closed. Other European nations agreed with this approach.
In October, Irish Prime Minister Michel Martin said, We cannot and will not allow our children and young peoples futures to be another victim of this disease. They need and deserve their full education.
In most European countries, schools began reopening in June, with short-term closures occurring during regional outbreaks since their reopening. Most of Europes unified focus continues to support a safe in-person school learning program for its children.
Have our leaders in California considered the long-term costs of our schools remaining closed?
The National Center for Biotechnology Information, an organization that is funded by the federal government and is a branch of the National Institutes of Health, shared a November Journal of the American Medical Association report that included actuarial findings regarding future adverse affects of U.S. school closures.
This decision analytical model found that missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 5.53 million years of total life lost. This loss in life expectancy was likely to be greater than would have been observed if leaving primary schools open had led to an expansion of the first wave of the pandemic.
In other words, these findings suggest that the decision to close U.S. public primary schools in the early months of 2020 may very well be associated with a decrease in life expectancy for American children that is greater than any loss of life the coronavirus pandemic might have brought.
So yes, Im angry. Really angry. We know too much now to continue to support universal school closures at the primary level.
We must stop lying to ourselves and to our children. Elementary schools remain closed because adults couldnt pull it together. Classrooms are not closed to protect children. They are closed because of a faulty thought process that promoted the idea that closed elementary schools will protect the community a thought process, by the way, that is not supported by current Science.
Although the risks of keeping schools open drove decisions made in the early phases of the pandemic, the probable harm to children associated with school closure continues to be less explicitly discussed.
Why is this? Why are Californians avoiding this discussion?
Perhaps its because political figures and the news media have purposely manipulated public debate toward pitting school closures against lives saved, or the education of children against the health of the community.
Presenting the trade-offs in this way obscures the very real health consequences of interrupted education. These consequences are especially dire for young children. There is little reason to scientifically believe that virtual learning environments can be effective for primary school-aged children.
Of course, keeping schools open at any price is also faulty science. If an in-person school experiences an outbreak, quarantine is a necessary and safe practice. Children and families with co-morbidities must make different choices.
However, to keep all primary schools closed, with the chance that an outbreak might happen, is cowardly and irresponsible. Worse, it tells our children that the adults who are responsible for their education care more about themselves than they do the children they are tasked to educate.
It communicates that fear and anxiety drive adult decisions, even when science tells a different story.
The lies that led to the continued closure of elementary schools in California may have begun innocently. However, the lies must now stop.
Science is no longer driving this decision. Fear, anxiety, incompetence and adult selfishness are keeping classroom doors closed today.
These closed doors are further driving inequitable policies for our most fragile students students whose very lives will be cut short due to future risk factors that are only escalating with each day of a closed classroom.
Its time to embrace truth and science again. Its time to open Californias public schools.
NOW. Not next week. Not next month. NOW.
Any public elementary school that is unprepared to open safely, 11 months after officially closing last March, should be held accountable by taxpayers. Every day, every hour, every minute that goes by with a child being deprived of in-person learning is unacceptable in a country that calls itself the greatest nation on earth.
We must stop misleading ourselves. We must stop failing our children.
It will be too late for some ... even now. Lets not make it too late for more by continuing to allow special-interest groups (and a growing number of anxiety-ridden adults) to ignore Science and further damage our childrens future.
Suzanne Nicastro is superintendent/principal of Manzanita Public Charter School on Vandenberg Air Force Base. The opinions expressed are her own.
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