How to keep kids in school

Across the country, children are returning to school. For some kids, it's the first time they will be back in the classroom full-time since the pandemic began in March 2020. It's the responsibility of adults to make sure they can be in the classroom and stay safe. 

Virtual learning is not an acceptable substitute for classroom instruction. According to a McKinsey study, virtual instruction in Spring 2020 left the average student "three months behind where we would expect them to be in mathematics" and "a month and a half behind" in reading. 

There were improvements in virtual instruction beginning in the Fall 2020, but McKinsey estimates, by the end of the 2020-21 academic year the average student cumulatively lost "five to nine months of learning." Moreover, there is evidence that virtual instruction "compound[s] racial disparities in learning and achievement" because students of color experienced above-average learning loss. This is partially due to the fact that students of color are less likely to have access to the internet or devices necessary to fully participate in virtual classes. 

The negative impact of virtual learning goes beyond academic achievement. Many students suffered "emotionally, mentally and even physically from so many hours, often alone, in front of a computer screen." 

While vaccines are not yet available for kids under 12, kids can safely return to the classroom by wearing masks. There is data to prove it. Researchers studied 864,515 K-12 students in North Carolina who attended in-person school, while wearing masks, from March 2021 through June 2021.

According to the study, a total of 6,484 students were infected with COVID-19 in the community. But there were just 308 cases of "secondary" infections — students who contracted COVID-19 from another student at school. Guidelines required anyone potentially exposed to the infected students to quarantine but ultimately only 1% of quarantined students tested positive. There were similar findings about the efficacy of masking in Utah, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

If students wear masks, it may not be necessary for them to social distance from other students or teachers. The North Carolina researchers found "no difference between schools requiring greater than 3 feet of distance between students compared to those requiring less than 3 feet." 

In the absence of masking, the Delta variant spreads rapidly among kids. In Houston, for example, "health officials reported more than 130 youths and adults tested positive for the virus in cases connected to a church camp." Large outbreaks at schools could force them to close entirely for weeks and force students, again, to learn virtually. 

The research is consistent with the advice of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP "strongly recommends in-person learning"  for the 2021-22 school year and advises that "everyone older than age 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status." The group adds that "children are at higher risk of suffering mental health issues and developmental setbacks if they miss out on in-school learning."

Yet, in Florida and Texas, governors are putting kids at risk by banning school boards from requiring masks. 

DeSantis disempowers parents

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) claims he is banning school boards from instituting mask mandates because he wants to empower parents:

I think parents should be the ones to make the decision. If parents choose to mask some of these young children, that may not be the decision I make, but you know what? I trust them to know their circumstances better than government. But the converse is true as well.

But DeSantis' argument is bunk. If schools don't have a uniform policy to require masks, no student can be required to wear a mask, regardless of what parents decide. Teachers are not equipped to enforce different policies for different students within the same class. So students will make their own decisions. And students who are maskless don't just endanger themselves but put their classmates at greater risk of infection. 

A strong majority of parents, however, want a mask requirement in school. A new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 63% of "all parents of children who attend school think their child’s school should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks at school." These parents are being disempowered by DeSantis. 

DeSantis' order banning mask requirements in schools also includes misinformation about masks. The order claims, without evidence, that "forcing children to wear masks could inhibit breathing [and] lead to the collection of dangerous impurities including bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other contaminants." 

Despite DeSantis' order, school officials in Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Palm Beach counties have announced mask mandates for all students. In response, DeSantis has threatened to withhold the salaries of the officials responsible for the decision. "[Y]ou can't put a price tag on someone's life, including my salary," Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna said

A group of Florida parents has sued DeSantis, alleging that his order puts their children at risk. 

COVID can be serious, even for kids

Children are not as vulnerable to COVID-19 as the elderly. And, in many children, infections can be mild. But, as the Delta variant increases the rate of infections among kids, "children’s hospitals are seeing a spike in medical care needs among the young patients."

Before schools opened in Florida, the state already had "the second-highest number of children hospitalized for the treatment of COVID-19 in the nation." In late July, "an average of 1,540 Florida children under 12" were testing positive each day for COVID. That represented a "600% increase over the same time a month earlier." As cases increase, pediatricians are reporting an "alarming rise in children being hospitalized." Last week, there were "157 pediatric inpatients at Florida hospitals with a confirmed case of COVID-19." 

The only state with more children hospitalized with COVID is Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott (R) has also issued an order banning mask mandates. At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston alone there are "approximately 45 COVID-19 pediatric hospitalizations." Several Texas counties have secured injunctions against Abbott's order, allowing them to impose mask mandates in schools, for now.