Closing classrooms is more harmful to children than COVID

As new cases of the Omicron variant emerge, thousands of schools have delayed a return to personal learning. Cities including Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit have switched to online learning or completely canceled school. A notable and commendable exception – thanks to the new mayor Eric Adams – is New York City

Policy making involves trade-offs. Here, the decision is easy: The benefit of limiting personal classes far outweighs the harm that distance learning inflicts on children. As one head of The BMJ (British Medical Journal) concluded a year ago: “Closing schools is not evidence-based and harms children.”

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. None of the claims are true.

As I noted almost a year ago, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report confirmed that K-12 schools are not associated with COVID-19 transmission from students within schools or out into the community. Transfer in educational and childcare settings is rare, especially if mitigating strategies, such as masking, distancing, and keeping students together in cohorts, are used. As Adams put it, “The safest place for our children is in a school building.”

Mayor Eric Adams on a podium wearing a face mask.
New York City schools have remained open while others across the country have closed, with Mayor Eric Adams believing that “the safest place for our children is in a school building.”
James Messerschmidt for the NY Post

Although infected, COVID-19 poses a small risk to school-age children. They account for a vanishingly small percentage of U.S. COVID-19 deaths. In the two years of the pandemic, only 708 children between 5 and 17 died out of 825,000 total COVID-19 deaths. The Covid 19s were comparable to the flu, which killed 572 children aged 5-17 in 2017-2018 and 2018-19, the last two flu seasons prior to the pandemic.

Serious complications have been uncommon in children and will be even less likely with the currently widespread, but less virulent, Omicron variant. Children aged 5 to 17 currently account for only 0.8% of COVID-19 hospital admissions, and as many as 40% of these are random COVID admissions – children without COVID symptoms admitted for other medical problems that have been tested positive for routine hospitalization screening.

There have been 6,000 cases of MIS-C, a rare but serious inflammatory syndrome seen weeks after COVID-19 in children and adolescents. Most were admitted, but almost all recovered fully without long-term sequelae. Less than 1% died. The risk of persistent symptoms after infection in children – so-called “long COVID” – is uncertain, but appears to be quite low.

Parents and teachers gather for safer personal conditions in schools during the pandemic.
Schools address distance learning in the name of protecting children from becoming infected, as well as the vulnerable people in children’s lives.
Gregory P. Mango

Children pose a small risk

Students pose a small risk to teachers and staff. Even before vaccines were available, the CDC determined that other adults, not students, are the primary sources of viral exposure among adults in schools. Studies in Wisconsin and Sweden found no increase in severe COVID-19 cases in teachers. Now most teachers and staff are vaccinated.

School children also pose a small risk at home. Only 6% of people aged 65 and over – the most vulnerable group accounting for 80% of COVID-19 fatalities – live in a household with a school-age child (5-18 years). Only 7% of school-age children live with a senior.

While the frequency of household transfer from children to adults is uncertain, it is likely uncommon. A study of 12 million adults in the UK found no difference in the risk of infection, hospitalization, intensive care unit or death of adults over the age of 65 from COVID-19 between homes with or without children. Adults 65 and younger living with children also had no increase in severe COVID-19 outcomes, and those living with children aged 0 to 11 actually had fewer COVID-19 deaths than childless homes.

School children read books in the classroom with masks on.
Although not impossible, young children have one of the lowest risks of getting COVID-19.
Getty Images

Although the benefits of school closures are minimal, the costs are not. School closures have been associated with loss of learning, decreased social interaction and development, decreased physical activity and mental health problems. The decline in students’ standardized math and English test scores in 2020-2021 was greater in districts with less personal tuition, and was significantly greater in districts with poor students and minority students. Closures negatively affect students’ level of education and future earnings, an effect that was greatest in poor neighborhoods.

The current wave of school closures is based on fear, not science. Students have endured two years of harmful educational disorder. Enough is enough.

Joel Zinberg, MD, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, associate clinical professor of surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan and director of the Paragon Health Institutes Public Health and American Well-Being Initiative.

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