As the two-year anniversary of school shutdowns in Pennsylvania quickly approaches and closures continue rampantly across the state, school board and other government officials should be asking if these methods are effective. Ultimately, did school closures flatten the curve, prevent deaths, slow the spread, and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed? The answer is unequivocally no, and the unintended consequences of school closures have been far worse than the risk. However, many school districts continue to use the same playbook repeatedly, expecting different results.
One year ago, the CDC published research showing that transmission rates were lower in schools than in the community at large. “Despite widespread community transmission, Covid-19 incidence in schools conducting in-person instruction was 37% lower than that in the surrounding community.”
Policymakers have stated that in-person education should be a priority for all students due to the unintended consequences of prolonged school closures. The CDC, the Surgeon General, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the President of the United States have stated that schools should remain open. Yet, in Philadelphia, 92 schools were closed last week, and there are buildings and districts closed all across the Commonwealth.
READ MORE — Teachers’ union asks for pause to in-person instruction if more mitigation measures aren’t taken
The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and Atlantic Magazine have recently published articles about the devastating consequences of remote learning on students, particularly for the most vulnerable students. Children across the state and the country are suffering from a mental health crisis. Behavioral problems and incidents abound when students are actually in school, and children are the victims of increased gun and domestic violence. The learning loss for the majority of students, but particularly for already disadvantaged students, is staggering. The most at-risk students are subject to the highest number of school closures.
With all of this data, why are schools still closing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and around the country? Why can some districts in the Commonwealth figure out ways to stay open while others continue to close? For example, Souderton School District in Montgomery County was fully open for in-person instruction for the entire last school year — with the exception of two virtual days for the high school due to staffing issues. Red Lion School District in York County also stayed fully open the last two school years; this year, despite Pa. Secretary of Health Allison Beam’s unconstitutional masking order, masking was optional for students and staff.
There are two different, but related reasons for school closures. Some districts are closing entirely because of case counts. For all the reasons listed above, case counts should not be a driving force for closing a school. It has been shown that students and teachers are actually safer in the classroom than in the community. Students are neither contracting nor transmitting the virus to a significant degree at school, to either other students or their teachers.
The most at-risk students are subject to the highest number of school closures.
Additionally, the mitigation measures that have been “advised” over the last two years clearly have not worked, as the virus is still with us. The reality is that we will never be at Covid zero. It will be impossible to fully eradicate the virus. It is already morphing into something similar to the seasonal flu. If the mitigation efforts actually worked, then the virus would have been eliminated. When the CDC stated a year ago that schools were not source of transmission, it qualified the announcement by stating that mitigation measures like masking, distancing, and quarantine contributed to the safe environment. A year later, the CDC is stating that regular cloth masks do not prevent the spread of the virus, and quarantine times have been shortened from 14 to 5 days. How can we trust an organization that keeps changing its position? If school closures and the other significant measures our elected officials took to “stop the spread” worked, then two years later Covid would no longer exist.
It is well past time to advise flattening the curve or stopping the spread. Schools need to open and stay open. End of story. The crises among young people can no longer be considered unintended consequences. Every school board and every school administrator who closes schools knows full well what the consequences are. With the knowledge we have now, such decisions are at a minimum neglectful of children, and at worst criminal.
The second, and perhaps more challenging reason for school closures is staff shortages. Due to overly restrictive quarantine policies, teachers, staff, and bus drivers are not allowed to report to work. This has created a real issue for principals and administrators who are already overloaded with contract tracing requirements set forth from local health departments.
The reality is that we will never be at Covid zero.
However, there are solutions to these problems, even if they are not ideal. First, some districts are pulling administrators, staff, and teachers not assigned to specific classrooms to cover for teachers who are absent. Other districts have arranged for parents to obtain emergency teaching certificates to serve as substitutes. Some districts have called upon parents to drive their children to school and to help arrange carpools for those parents who can’t drive. Buses can be prioritized to areas where parent transportation is not possible.
These challenges can be solved; it is an issue of desire and determination. Closing schools is the easy answer, and the one our state can ill-afford. It is time to accept that Covid is here to stay, and that our children and their futures must be prioritized above everything else. Our society cannot continue to impose the most restrictions on the least at-risk population when it comes to health, and the most at-risk when it comes to their life prospects. Our principals need to stop spending hours contract tracing and focus on academic outcomes for their students. Our teachers need to stop acting as the mask police and focus on high quality instruction and getting our students caught up.
The research does not support closures or any of the mitigation measures that have been imposed or advised over the last two years. For our children’s sake, it is time to admit our mistakes and stop perpetuating these misinformed policy decisions. Ultimately, if someone is sick, they should stay home. Otherwise, everyone else should continue to wash their hands and get back to the business of education.
Beth Ann Rosica is the Executive Director of Back to School PA PAC and is a parent in the West Chester Area School District. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and has spent her career advocating for underserved children and families.