President Trump wants my kid to go back to school. I am not ready to shoulder the risks of that decision.
Now that Memorial Day has passed, the school year is over — or nearly so — for most of the country. But the president is eager to reopen the country from the coronavirus lockdown, despite the fact the virus itself continues to take a terrible toll: The official death count in the United States rose to nearly 100,000 souls over the holiday weekend. The danger has not abated.
The president is pressing ahead, nonetheless. "Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," he tweeted on Sunday. "Much very good information now available."
Luckily, the fall term doesn't start for a few months, so school leaders and families don't have to make this decision right now. I would love to send my son back to middle school when Labor Day comes around — it's good for him, good for me, and he hasn't exactly taken to the distance-learning techniques provided by my city's public school district. But unless a vaccine or tremendously effective treatment materializes between now and then, I will remain cautious about sending my kid back to class, no matter what Trump says.
The biggest reason, of course, is that we don't really know that kids are all that safe from the effects of the coronavirus. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently quoted an article that put the COVID-19 death rate for children and adults under 25 at a relatively miniscule 1 in 1.25 million. While it's true that young children are not packing the ICUs at the same rate as older people, doctors are reporting cases in which previously healthy young children are experiencing fever, nausea, and rashes — signs of a delayed immune response to the virus. The number of cases appears to be relatively small, in the hundreds so far, but several children have died. The syndrome has also started showing up in young adults. Until and unless we better understand why some children are getting sick while others are not, caution is warranted.
Even if the death rate for children really is low, mortality rates should not be the only measure by which we judge the effects of COVID-19 on individuals, including young children. There are other medium- and long-term effects: The U.K. National Health Service has estimated 45 percent of hospitalized coronavirus patients will need ongoing medical care, even if they survive the virus. Another 1 percent are expected to require permanent care. These are people who don't show up in the death statistics, but whose lives and livelihoods will be greatly altered. And we still don't know what the long-term effects might be on children who contract the virus.
Admittedly it is still an open question whether kids can spread the virus as efficiently as adults. That doesn't mean it is a good idea to start packing classrooms again. The worst coronavirus outbreaks have been in nursing homes, prisons, and meatpacking plants — all places where people are crowded together and cannot satisfactorily abide by social distancing guidelines. Schools aren't prisons, but anybody who has tried to navigate a school hallway between classes knows that it is difficult to move around freely — much less maintain six feet of separation — in a sea of young bodies. Those kids then go home to parents, siblings, and sometimes even grandparents who are all more vulnerable to COVID-19.
"What we don't know yet is the degree to which children can transmit the virus," an infectious diseases expert told Vox earlier this month.
And this is the most important point: There is still so much we do not know about the virus and how to protect ourselves. We do know that COVID-19 is increasingly invading rural areas, and experts warn that a second surge of infections seems likely to arrive with colder weather in the fall — right about time schools would be reopening. That is scary.
While the last few months of lockdown, deaths, and economic devastation feel long, judging by even the most-optimistic timelines for a vaccine, we probably are still closer to the beginning of this pandemic than the end. Yet Trump so plainly wants Americans to feel like normalcy has returned even if it hasn't. The president has ignored his own administration's guidelines in his effort to push governors to reopen their economies, and has barely acknowledged the human cost of the pandemic except in the most minimal fashion — he spent Memorial Day weekend playing golf and blasting his enemies on Twitter, while demanding that churches reopen and pressuring North Carolina to allow a mass gathering at this summer's Republican National Convention. He has put more effort into telling the country he is doing a good job confronting the virus than he has in actually trying to do a good job, and appears more interested in his approval ratings than in mitigating the suffering.
Parents understandably worry that lost classroom time means their kids will fall behind. Others may not have access to the technology needed for remote learning, or they may need the schools to provide meals to their children. More than a few parents need schools to reopen simply so they can have some daytime childcare. Nothing about this is easy. It will be a good day when schools can reopen safely.
But parents should be wary of risking their children's health to buttress the president's vanity and image. If schools reopen this fall, there is a good chance my child won't be in attendance.
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