We’re more than halfway through August. The days are still long, but not quite as long as they were not long ago. The summer heat is still oppressive, but every few days, if you rise early enough in the morning, especially in those few minutes before the sun breaks the horizon, you can almost feel a little chill, just letting you know that fall isn’t that far away.
The summer is winding down. It is time for the start of the new school year.
If you watch the news at all, you might believe there’s not a public school teacher in the U.S. who wants to return to school. I am writing to tell you there are.
I am a math teacher in a public high school, and I cannot wait to get back in the classroom teaching kids! Many of my colleagues feel the same. Last week we were back at work getting ready, and we’re really looking forward to having our kids back in class on Aug. 24.
You will not see us on the news.
Instead, you read about an NPR poll of teachers last month that found two-thirds believe schools should open virtually, offering students an opportunity to learn via the internet instead of the classroom.
You see in Chicago where teachers stood shoulder to shoulder in the streets, with no attempt to social distance, to “oppose a planned return to classrooms” because they are afraid they will catch COVID-19 from one of their colleagues or students.
Even with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressing the importance of opening schools for onsite instruction this fall, and the American Academy of Pediatrics concurring, the nation’s two largest teachers unions claim doing so now “could be putting students, their families, and educators in danger.”
Every public school plan to reopen schools I have seen offers families a choice to keep their children home, giving them an online option for obtaining their education. So the risk to families is a nonstarter in this argument to open the schools. Families have a choice.
As for the risk to educators, from the start I have advocated for teachers in high-risk categories to have the option to teach from home. This would cost a little, but still it seems like a reasonable option as the pandemic continues to assault our population. As for the rest of us, it is time to step up, get back in school and do our part to get past this.
For the past five months, teachers and students have been banned from the schools, but all of us, at the very least, continued to patronize “essential” businesses.
Grocery stores, banks, even liquor stores and tobacco shops stayed open to serve us and everyone else. Many of those essential employees are parents of our students and even our students themselves. How can we teachers claim it is too dangerous for us to return to work while we expect our patrons to put themselves at risk to serve us?
What about the danger to students?
Take a look at some data — you know, those pesky numbers that people making emotional pleas in place of rational arguments just ignore. How about we start with the CDC’s own provisional death counts that are available for anyone to download?
The data available in this document give the number of deaths by age group for COVID-19, pneumonia and influenza.
Since we are concerned with the safety of students when we reopen schools, we will compare the number of deaths from each of these illnesses for Americans under age 25. The great thing about this document is that it only contains data from the time period of the pandemic. The counts we will discuss here are of deaths that occurred from Feb. 1 to Aug. 8 of this year.
The first age group we will look at are infants under 1 year.
Though these kids are not going to be taking classes at public schools, many will be headed back to day care as their parents return to full-time work. Many of these kids also have older siblings who will return to school, and a common argument is that kids will catch the virus at school and bring it home to their vulnerable family members. So let’s look at the numbers of deaths by COVID-19 versus deaths by influenza and pneumonia.
Since Feb. 1, 9,159 children under 1 year of age have died in the U.S. Sixteen of those died with COVID-19. That is sixteen across the entire country!
In the same time period, 83 children under 1 have died with pneumonia. (Two of those also had COVID-19, so we are going to assume COVID-19 caused the pneumonia in those cases.)
This means children under 1 year of age are more than five times more likely to die of pneumonia than from COVID-19. In the same time period, 15 kids under one have died from influenza. So kids under one are only slightly more likely to die from Covid-19 than from influenza. Considering only the risk to kids under 1, it might make sense to keep schools shut down due to the risk of death from this virus, but only if we did the same every flu season.
But we don’t shut down schools for flu season to protect kids under 1. So we can’t say these numbers make the case to keep school houses closed.
OK, what about those day care and preschool kids? How has the pandemic affected them?
Over the same pandemic time period as above, 10 children age 1-4 years have died from COVID-19, while 56 succumbed to pneumonia. Two of those also had COVID-19. So again, we assume COVID-19 caused the pneumonia in those cases.
This means kids 1-4 years of age are 5.4 times more likely to perish from pneumonia than from COVID-19. In this same age group, 41 kids died from influenza, meaning these kids are 4.1 times more likely to die from the flu than they are from the coronavirus.
For kids 1-4 years of age, there is no evidence to support keeping kids out of school due to the pandemic.
The picture looks similar for students 5-14 years of age. These are your kindergartners through eighth-graders. Since Feb. 1, 23 students in this age group have died from coronavirus. Seven of the 88 kids in this age group who died from pneumonia also had COVID-19.
The same assumption as before for them reveals these young boys and girls are 3.5 times more likely to die from pneumonia than from COVID-19. During this time, 51 kids in this age group perished from influenza. Therefore, the flu kills students in this age group 2.2 times more often than does the novel coronavirus.
So far, for kids under age 15, none of the numbers suggest we should force the schools to stay closed.
Let’s look at the last age group, ninth grade through college, ages 15-24. I wish these numbers were broken down so we could break out the numbers under 19 and get an idea of the difference in high school and college death rates. But the CDC age groups are what we have to work with so we’ll go with it.
At first glance, these data might be the smoking gun that advocates for keeping schools closed are looking for.
Older teens and young adults in this age group saw 242 COVID-19 deaths since Feb. 1. Pneumonia deaths counted 340 over the same period, with 81 of those also confirmed COVID-19 cases. Again, we assume COVID-19 the pneumonia, meaning death by pneumonia is slightly more likely than death by COVID-19 for this age group.
The flu is where the school closure advocates will hang their hats, though. Only 52 influenza deaths for 15-24 year-olds since Feb. 1, making it 4.65 times more likely for them to die from the virus than from the flu.
But what if there was a way to protect the vulnerable in this age group to reduce the death rate?
Provisional death rates do not give data on underlying conditions. An April examination of COVID-19 cases by the CDC indicates these may well be significant risk factors, suggesting we might be able to reduce the death rate in this age group by protecting those with such conditions.
According to that study, more than three-quarters of juvenile cases severe enough to require hospitalization were accompanied by at least one underlying condition. And if we could split this age group and see data on 15-18-year-olds, we might well make our case for reopening schools even stronger.
In my home state of Arkansas, 573 deaths are attributed to COVID-19. Of those, exactly zero were under the age of 25. Not one COVID-19 death under age 25 in Arkansas. And still, as noted above, the Arkansas Education Association wants to keep kids from returning to the classroom for now.
For this public school teacher, and for many of my colleagues, the data clearly fails to support the calls for continued school shutdowns. It is time to open the schools. It is time to get kids back to learning so parents can get back to work and this nation can get back on its feet.
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