The growing debate over reopening schools this fall is actually a debate about the future of the United States in the age of coronavirus.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the world is going to have to learn to live with his disease. Even after a vaccine is found, it will be a decade or even two before the coronavirus is eradicated. Until then, it will be a threat.
But to who? Therein lies the debate over the future. While our knowledge of the virus is incomplete, we know enough to realize who is at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying. So the question is how much risk do we expose our children to? Our teenage kids? Young adults?
A society that has a collective heart attack if a parent allows a child to walk home from school will not cope well with this future that is being forced upon us.
Schools must reopen. Children must learn. These self-evident ideas are fundamental to a functioning society. And given what we know about the minimal danger to children from the coronavirus, it becomes hard to understand the resistance to reopening schools.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is prepared to lead his state into the future. He wants the schools open even in the midst of a serious rise in infections.
“If fast food and Walmart and Home Depot — and, look, I do all that, so I’m not looking down on it — but if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential,” he added.
DeSantis, a staunch ally of President Trump, made the statement after the president said he was going to put pressure on governors to reopen schools this fall. Florida is one of several states in the country currently experiencing a severe COVID-19 outbreak.
So have the kids sit at a monitor at the kitchen table 8 hours a day and they can get all the learning they need, right? The fact is, not every kid has a monitor at home or even a computer. Millions of kids across the country will fall hopelessly and permanently behind without in-person education.
Besides that, education is more than just learning and books. There is an invaluable experience a kid receives while interacting with others. Learning in isolation is a poor substitute for in-person schooling.
DeSantis said online learning is “just not the same” and that he worries about children “missing out on activities.” He also said he supports parents who chose to continue online education.
“I’m confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools. I want our kids to be able to minimize this education gap that I think has developed,” he said.
It’s not exactly the same risk of going to school as shopping in Walmart or some other large retailer. School classrooms are smaller and kids spend a lot longer than half an hour or 45 minutes shopping.
But even an elevated risk should be acceptable.
The predominant signs and symptoms of COVID-19 reported to date among all patients are similar to other viral respiratory infections, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Although these signs and symptoms may occur at any time during the overall disease course, children with COVID-19 may not initially present with fever and cough as often as adult patients.4,15,16 In a report of nine hospitalized infants in China with confirmed COVID-19, only half presented with fever.9 Gastrointestinal symptoms, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, were reported in a minority of adult patients.17 In one pediatric case of COVID-19, diarrhea was the only symptom reported.10
Less than two percent of cases worldwide are found in children under 18. Less than one percent of those result in hospitalization. The hospitalization rate for kids is about the same for the flu and, of course, many more children are infected with the flu virus.
If parents accept the risk of sending kids to school during the flu season, there is no reason they shouldn’t accept it now.
Public health professionals are doing their jobs — they’re sounding the alarm about spreading the coronavirus. But there are choices we’re going to have to make that will entail an increased risk of becoming infected. For someone like me, that risk is unacceptable because of my heart condition and diabetes making me very vulnerable to becoming critically ill.
But for relatively healthy children and young adults, the risk of contracting the virus must be weighed against what will be gained. And that’s the future of America living with the coronavirus.