By Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner
The need to fully reopen Illinois schools is growing more urgent day by day. Evidence shows the mental and emotional harm to children of not being in school is outweighing the potential harm of the coronavirus. The good news is the risk of a full-time, in-class reopening is far lower than originally feared. Other countries’ experiences show Illinois can reopen schools safely.
Unfortunately, the teachers’ unions say that without significantly more rules – and more spending – those reopenings aren’t going to happen. Illinois’ unions have already warned that the state’s recently announced reopening plan doesn’t do enough. They say districts must embrace smaller class sizes, social distancing, alternate school days, additional medical staff and more remote learning for teachers and students to be safe. If the state and local districts don’t do – and fund – everything the unions want, look for teachers to oppose opening schools this fall.
Getting kids back to school is now the coronavirus’s latest political football, even though an abundance of evidence and experience shows it shouldn’t be.
Illinois should fully reopen schools
Keeping schools shut has had an increasingly negative impact on children’s lives. More and more evidence shows that children missing school is leading to isolation, anxiety, the loss of critical development time, and not to mention, lost instructional time – remote learning didn’t work. There’s also the increased risk of unreported child abuse and teen suicide.
“There’s a key connection between having good peer interactions and social emotional well-being,” says Rebecca Rialon Berry, clinical associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York. “In certain populations, we’re seeing that our depression and anxiety are heightening with continued quarantining” and other aspects of the pandemic. “We have to start talking about the calculated risk and taking some more.”
“Of all age groups, this virus is probably more socially devastating to teens than any other group. They are bored and they are lonely,” says Joseph P. Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
No less than the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school” and that “policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families and the community by keeping children at home.”
And there’s the economic harm to consider as well. As the state opens up and businesses bring employees back, families remain stuck, especially those where both parents work. Daycare facilities remain restricted and summer camps and schools are closed, leaving parents with few options. A return to normalcy for families can’t happen without students going back to school.
What we know of COVID-19 says reopenings can happen. Children, thankfully, have been largely spared from the worst effects of the coronavirus. Across Illinois as of July 6, only four children under the age of 20 have died due to COVID-19. In total, they make up just 0.06 percent of all virus deaths in the state.
Nationwide, deaths for children under the age of 15 now total just 29.
While the loss of any life is tragic, the reality is children are more likely to die from the flu or pneumonia than COVID-19. As the WSJ reported in May: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 15 children under age 15 in the U.S. have died of Covid-19 since February compared to about 200 who died of the flu and pneumonia. Children represent 0.02% of virus fatalities in the U.S., and very few have been hospitalized.”
For sure, there are other issues such as inflammation leading to lung damage that some children have experienced. But those conditions are rare enough to not justify the continued shutdown of school for all.
The big challenge for district officials in Illinois and across the county will be to protect children with pre-existing conditions. At least two of Illinois’ younger victims had comorbidities, according to a Wirepoints analysis of Cook County Medical Examiner data.
For those children and others at risk, online learning will be the best option until a vaccine or herd immunity is developed. But for the rest of Illinois’ student body, going back to school full time can and should be the priority.
At the same time, precautions will have to be taken to protect adults in the education system, particularly teachers. Accommodations must be made for educators that are elderly and/or have pre-existing conditions. The same goes for parents struggling with the same issues.
Fortunately, more and more research also shows that schools are not the coronavirus breeding ground many feared they would be. A big reason why is that younger children are apparently not a significant contractor or spreader of COVID-19. Science magazine recently reported that “several studies have found that overall, people under age 18 are between one-third and one-half as likely as adults to contract the virus, and the risk appears lowest for the youngest children.”
Most importantly, we know that the low risks of reopening aren’t just theoretical. Countries like Germany, Austria, Norway and Denmark reopened schools in May and June with various levels of protections in place.
Science called the reopenings a “vast, uncontrolled experiment:”
Some schools imposed strict limits on contact between children, while others let them play freely. Some required masks, while others made them optional. Some closed temporarily if just one student was diagnosed with COVID-19; others stayed open even when multiple children or staff were affected, sending only ill people and direct contacts into quarantine.
Several weeks later, we can see the results. Most, if not all countries, that reopened schools didn’t experience a surge in cases among students.
In particular, Denmark closed schools in March and reopened them in April after establishing social distancing rules such as desks being six feet apart and staggered recesses. The Washington Post reports that “so far, there have been no signs of a coronavirus resurgence — new cases continued to decline as schools reopened, a trend also seen in some other European countries.”
And that’s despite some countries’ less stringent approach to measures such as masks. Germany doesn’t require students to wear masks at their desks. Austria abandoned its own mask requirement only a few weeks after opening. And mask wearing is optional for staff and students in Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Sweden.
All that being said, reopening Illinois schools, like anything else, should be reconsidered if COVID-19 outcomes worsen. But based on what we know now, schools should fully reopen.
Teachers unions want more
The teachers unions aren’t going to make reopening easy, especially as they’ve begun to invoke “collective bargaining issues” in their response to the state’s reopening proposals.
Here are excerpts from the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and Illinois Education Association (IEA) response to Illinois’ 2020-21 school year transition plan released in June:
Successfully incorporating the ISBE guidelines will depend largely on the labor management relationship and whether or not all the support staff, teachers and stakeholders have a real voice in determining what school looks like in our new normal…
We are committed to working with ISBE to help update the guidelines and give better guidance on what to do with crowded classrooms and schools, collective bargaining issues, and the lack of critical staff and resources such as school nurses and PPE. We are very much looking forward to working with our students, and we urge ISBE to assist every school in Illinois in getting the resources needed to keep every student and adult safe…
We are our students’ voice. It is imperative that as plans are developed for the year, we get a chance to ensure the safety of our students and our members, that some of our biggest concerns in this document are addressed, including resources and collective bargaining…
And the union leadership at the national level has been quite clear about the price tag for reopening. The American Federation for Teachers has added up all the additional spending they want nationally and it totals $116.5 billion. Illinois’ share of that cost, if calculated based on the state’s share of the nation’s student population, will total nearly $5 billion.
Some Illinoisans may be tempted to empathize with those demands, but the state already spends more per student than any other state in the Midwest. At more than $15,000 in state, local and federal dollars, Illinois spends 30 percent more per student than Wisconsin and 50 percent more than Indiana.
That’s a big reason why Illinois’ property taxes are the highest in the nation. About two-thirds of resident property tax bills in most areas of the state go to education.
The state should reject a “spend more for partial school reopenings” strategy. Full reopenings must be the standard. School districts should have the choice to do less, but anything other than a full reopening should result in a refund to taxpayers.
Illinois already has all the money it needs in education. The state and school districts must reprioritize the resources they have to match the COVID-19 reality Illinoisans face before expecting billions more in taxpayer dollars.
Read more about the impact of COVID-19 on Illinois and the state’s education system.
- What’s Illinois’ true COVID-19 fatality rate?
- Illinois downstaters had it right all along. COVID-19 data shows Pritzker should have reopened downstate weeks ago.
- Illinois homeowners beware, COVID-19 means even higher property taxes
- Illinois spends 30 to 50 percent more than its neighbors on education, but results don’t budge