For those who took anything away from the testimony of Centers for Disease Control and Protection head Dr. Robert Redfield before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last week, it was that he wanted schools to reopen.
“I don’t think I can emphasize it enough, as the director for the Centers for Disease Control, the leading public health agency in the world — it is in the public health interest that these K through 12 students to get the schools back open for face-to-face learning,” Redfield said in the Friday hearing, according to the New York Post.
“I want these kids back in school,” he added, talking about the role schools play in issues like mental health and child abuse reporting.
“I want it done smartly but I think we have to be honest that the public health and interest of the students in the nation right now is to get a quality education and face-to-face learning. We need to get on with it.”
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) July 31, 2020
Media coverage of any piece of testimony tends to center on a quote like that pulled from hours of prepared remarks and partisan grilling, then subject it to microscopic analysis.
In Redfield’s case, the analysis tended to favor the usual narrative: Here again was proof the Trump administration was monomaniacally focused on getting schools open because if the schools don’t open, it’s an admission of some sort of failure by the administration.
If you wanted to hear more about why Redfield was taking this tack — as opposed to why a panel of socially distanced talking heads thought Redfield was taking this tack — you would do well to watch or read his remarks from a July 14 webinar for the Buck Institute.
The toll COVID-19 is taking on high schoolers isn’t imaginary, Redfield said in those remarks — but it isn’t because of the disease itself. According to the CDC director, we’ve seen both more suicides and more drug overdoses among the high school cohort than deaths from the coronavirus.
“I think that the cost to our nation in continuing to keep these schools closed is substantial, and I’m hopeful that resources that are necessary can be made available. That’s obviously not — it’s way above my pay grade,” Redfield said when asked about the costs associated with reopening schools.
“But there has been another cost that we’ve seen, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID.
“So this is why I keep coming back for the overall social being of individuals, is let’s all work together and find out how we can find common ground to get these schools open in a way that people are comfortable and they’re safe,” he continued.
“And if there is a need for investment and resources, just like there is a need for some of the underprivileged children that are probably better served if they have certain comorbidities to do homeschooling, they need the access to be able to have the computer and the internet to do that.”
Here’s CDC director Robert Redfield talking about the increase in suicide and drug overdoses. pic.twitter.com/oV9jgPFKea
— Drew Watson (@DrewWatsonAD) August 2, 2020
Redfield also said there wasn’t yet sufficient data to find out if children could be significant vectors of transmission, although data gathered so far doesn’t point in that direction.
“We’re building evidence that really does not point to children as being a major transmission instrument for this virus, you know, whether it’s in our household context studies that we’ve done where the introduction is basically by adults,” Redfield said.
“But critics to that can say, but children were largely corralled, so we haven’t seen them in the same setting. We’ll see them once they’re in the school setting. And so I don’t want to get ahead of the data.”
However, when it came to the lethality of COVID-19 to minors, Redfield noted the data showed it was relatively low.
“I think it is important to try to be factual as we go through this. When we look at, right now, the mortality of this particular COVID virus, in the first almost 218,000 people we looked at February to July, there [were] 52 individuals under the age of 18. And if I recollect, about 35 were actually school age,” Redfield said.
“I think that’s important because what that means, actually, is the risk per 100,000, so far, you know, into the outbreak, six months into it, is, in fact, that we’re looking at about point-one per 100,000. So another way to say that, it’s one in a million.”
Suicide death rates in 2017 for those between 15-19 were 11.8 per 100,000, according to a Wall Street Journal report that used CDC data. As conservative pundit Phil Kerpen noted in early July, “even a 1 percent increase” in the teen suicide rate would eclipse the number of deaths from COVID-19:
Even a one percent increase in the suicide rate among high school students would cause more deaths than have died with COVID-19 so far in that age group. pic.twitter.com/cBipgCPxdH
— Phil Kerpen (@kerpen) July 7, 2020
Redfield pointed out that “a lot of kids get their mental health services, over 7 million, in school. A lot of people get food and nutrition in schools. Schools are really important in terms of mandatory reporting sexual and child abuse.”
Thus (and this is the line the media really ought to have taken away from this webinar):
“It’s not risk of school openings versus public health. It’s public health versus public health,” Redfield said. “And I’m of the point of view, and I weigh that equation as an individual that has 11 grandchildren, that the greater risk is actually to the nation to keep these schools closed.”
This, in short, isn’t just the administration trying for a policy win.
Being overcautious isn’t just going to set students back in terms of in-person learning by confining learning to the virtual realm. (Although it would do that, too. According to a Wall Street Journal editorial from June 21, a study by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education found only 27 percent of districts surveyed actually took attendance, while 15,000 students in Los Angeles alone didn’t bother showing up for classes or doing work)
Being overly cautious kills. The data demonstrate that. It’s time to reopen.
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