We love our kids, education is an essential service directly correlated with future success, and school closures are associated with declines in students’ mental health, social well-being, and academic achievement. These are the evidence-based unifying values purportedly shared by parents, teachers, administrators, and our government.
Unfortunately, the actions of some stakeholders conflict with these shared values. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) is asking that schools be held to Covid-safety standards far beyond those applied to other non-essential services such as entertainment venues, restaurants, public transportation, and even some hospitals. “Disney-on-Ice,” an event attended mostly by families with kids, went ahead at the Wells Fargo Center in January. The Super Bowl is full steam ahead, and attendance at indoor Sixers and Flyers games is robust and unrestricted.
Three factors contribute to the conflict between actions and values: fear, mistrust, and the desire of some stakeholders to leverage a vulnerability to gain maximum advantage.
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Fear is natural, but after nearly two years of managing Covid-19, that fear should be tempered. While hospitalizations in children are up overall, the numbers are not staggering. For example, in Chicago the “overwhelming percentage of hospitalized children are unvaccinated” according to public officials. No vaccine has ever been 100 percent effective, but data continue to show that full vaccination with boosters is highly protective against Covid-related death. Data indicates that up to 50 percent of current Covid-19 hospitalizations in the area are in patients admitted for other clinical reasons and incidentally testing positive at screening. This is all reassuring and should decrease fear.
Mistrust can be addressed by returning to our shared values and working collaboratively toward attainable goals. Mistrust is perpetuated by public bickering that features overstated opinions regarding policies that are either not evidence-based or simply impossible given current resource constraints. Routine testing of all students and teachers, for example, is not evidenced-based, not supported by clinical policy experts like those at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), not attainable given current resources, and could actually harm others by diverting limited tests from high-risk and symptomatic individuals. We certainly do not ask ordinary citizens to subject themselves to weekly asymptomatic testing. Some large health systems (such as CHOP) have stopped asymptomatic testing entirely; others have argued that this approach is unequitable by favoring highly resourced circumstances.
Evidence suggests activities such as unmasked multifamily gatherings and large indoor entertainment events are likely the source of most transmission, not the completely masked, socially distanced and structured environment attained in most school settings.
It is time for all of us to live our shared value that education is an essential service critical to the success of our students and city.
The overall stated goal of the PFT is to “make schools safe.” The key claim made by the PFT, that a safety plan does not exist, is also demonstrably false. In addition, it has been proven that pausing in-person schooling will have no impact on community transmission rates but will have a significant, negative impact on students. Data from the School District of Philadelphia also shows an increase in sixth to twelfth grade students who failed at least one class, from 26 percent during the 2019-2020 school year to 31 percent during the 2020-2021 school year. District data also shows that reading test performance among first graders fell 15 percentage points compared to a national sample.
Professionals in healthcare, transportation, and hospitality, to name a few, have largely refrained from exercising outsized political influence to take advantage of a crisis. They have worked collaboratively to engage in reasonable Covid-19 safety protocols to ensure and maintain essential services. If supermarkets, hotels, and hospitals shut down, our communities would be in dire straits. Unfortunately, there is no risk-free solution for Covid, just as there has never been for RSV or influenza, but the data is promising.
It is time for all of us to live our shared value that education is an essential service critical to the success of our students and city. Closing schools, as the PFT proposed, disproportionately harms those who depend on them the most. We must break the cycle of blame and obstruction and plot a path forward that acknowledges fear and anxiety head on, builds trust, sets aside self-interest, and delivers for our kids.
Priscilla Lo is a parent of a 6th grader in the Philadelphia School District, and has been actively advocating for schools to remain open safely in Philadelphia.