The decision on how to return to school this fall is an incredibly difficult one. Pediatricians, parents, and educators all share the same goal of wanting children to be back in the classroom as much as possible, but we must do so in a way that is safe.
The American Academy of Pediatrics made headlines recently over our return to school guidance, which recommended that that students be “physically present in school” as much as safely possible. Understandably, this topic has captured national attention. So much is at stake, including the health and safety of children, teachers, staff, and their families.
Our guidance states that we should be actively and safely working towards a goal of having students return to in-person learning. The guidance specifies that this should happen with careful measures to keep students and staff safe, and with flexibility to adapt as needed to the community’s prevalence of Covid-19. Particularly for our younger learners, weeks — or months — out of school can have long-lasting implications for their education. Online classes are not an equivalent substitute for many.
Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. This pandemic is especially hard on families who rely on school lunches or have limited access to the internet or health care. Schools also support parents by providing safe places for their children to be before, during and after school, particularly for parents who work, including essential workers.
Covid-19 does not seem to be affecting children nearly as severely as other respiratory illnesses. They are less likely to become infected, suffer mostly mild symptoms and are less likely to transmit the virus to others. Lessons learned from other countries indicate it is possible to return safely to in-person instruction.
But for schools to safely reopen with students in the classroom, Congress and the administration must provide needed funding and resources to help them adapt and prepare. Teachers and staff need to feel comfortable and safe when teaching our children. Schools will need to follow guidance from public health officials and adhere to health monitoring and cleaning/disinfecting protocols, have sufficient personal protective equipment for teachers, staff and students, implement new procedures for transporting students to school, ensure that students competing in athletics and other extracurricular activities are safe, adjust staffing schedules, and put protocols in place for how a school responds when a student or teacher tests positive for Covid-19.
These are just some of the challenges facing school leaders as they plan for the start of the school year, and we must be sure they are fully supported as they tackle this difficult and essential task.
I am alarmed by recent statements from federal leaders, including President Donald Trump, threatening to withhold federal funds from schools that do not pursue in-person reopening in the fall. Almost $30 billion, the bulk of federal funding for elementary and secondary schools, is focused on disadvantaged students — either those from low-income families or those needing special education. Any cuts would put already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would endanger the very people we are trying to protect.
Our guidance has also been politicized and misinterpreted by some to either mean we support a universal return to school no matter what, or that we shifted our recommendations to “walk back” that call for in-person attendance. Neither of these interpretations is true. When public health expertise is reframed to fit political interests, it harms those who have the most at stake and the least opportunity to advocate for themselves: children.
This global pandemic has laid bare the inequities in our social safety net, and it has given us a unique opportunity to address them. It is extremely troubling — and a reflection of systemic inequities that must be addressed — that many of the same children and families who face a greater risk of morbidity and mortality from Covid-19 also face the greatest potential negative impact from the absence of in-person schooling.
If we truly value our children, we must invest in them, and prioritize their needs in our decision-making. Children should not be a political bargaining chip, nor should they be an afterthought.
Let us aim for a return to school guided by science — and focused on children.