Closing schools is having unseen costs on parents and children. Florida is squandering the need to experiment.
Every choice has consequences. Often times, the consequences are the unseen — results that can’t be or are not seen at the time the choice is made. Only later do the consequences manifest themselves as the proverbial “unintended consequences.”
That certainly can apply to the blanket, one-size-fits-all decision in most states, Florida included, to shut down schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In much of the news reporting, little has been said about whether public officials engaged in deep discussions on the cost-benefits of closing schools.
We know what was emphasized — the goal of flattening the curve. Stay at home, the experts and officials told us. And that meant closing the schools.
Even though we learned early on that COVID-19 was particularly bad for those over age 65 and who were immunocompromised and not affecting children to any statistical degree, the broad brush painted everyone. Everyone, children included, stay at home.
Actually, the consequences of that decision were readily seen and heard.
We heard story after story of parents reaching peak frustration levels trying to manage the new world of online distance learning while also trying to manage their own jobs. We heard parents talk of fourth graders going from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. trying to complete assignments.
Everyone who has been working remotely can tell you stories of conducting business meetings on Zoom, only to have a colleague’s 2-year-old screech in the background or stick his mug 2 inches away from the camera on Mom’s laptop. It’s funny … for a while.
Asked how this arrangement was working at her home, Madeline, who was delivering cookies in her neighborhood Sunday, told us: “It’s crazy.”
Madeline is one of three children. She described a chaotic scene of she and her siblings vying for computer time Monday through Friday, all the while her parents juggling their own work on their laptops while assisting their children on the kid laptops.
You can imagine the scene. And imagine it from sun-up until bed time. From mid-March through June 3.
To be sure, no one in that picture is operating, or has been operating, at peak performance. The stress levels for children and parents are obvious — compounded by being quarantined. And we’re not even taking into account families whose parents are unemployed and have few resources for food and shelter.
Now extrapolate that chaotic scene. In Manatee and Sarasota counties, it has been replicated 63,939 times, the number of K-8 children. For all of Florida: 1,938,926 children locked at home with parents and/or grandparents for three months.
And that three months is likely to be extended to another three months — to the middle of August, assuming public schools will resume classes then.
But even that’s in doubt. Sarasota County School Board members wondered at their Tuesday meeting how the district would address social distancing in classrooms and on buses if they were required to operate, say, at half capacity. More teachers, more buses, a lot more money.
But more immediately, if you talk to parents now, they are struggling with the next real challenges: 1) Whether summer camps will be open, and 2) whether they should send their children to summer camp.
Do closures really help?
It’s difficult to quantify the consequences of shutting down the schools because many of the consequences are not economic. They’re social.
One example: One parent told us how her child’s energy and happiness levels shot off the charts when he was able to get together with a friend after not seeing him in person for a month.
In an April 6 report in the Lancet, a nearly 200-year-old, well-respected medical journal, nine health experts produced “a rapid systematic review” of “school closures and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks.” Among the conclusions:
“Currently, the evidence to support national closure of schools to combat COVID-19 is very weak, and data from influenza outbreaks suggest that school closures could have relatively small effects on a virus with COVID-19’s high transmissibility and apparent low clinical effect on school children. At the same time, these data also show that school closures can have profound economic and social consequences …
“Education is one of the strongest predictors of the health and the wealth of a country’s future workers, and the impact of long-term school closure on educational outcomes, future earnings, the health of young people and future national productivity has not been quantified,” the authors wrote.
As with SARS in Asia, the attack rate of COVID-19 on U.S. children has been minimal (see box). If you compute the number of coronavirus cases affecting children from ages 0-14, it’s 2.5 per 100,000 in the nine-county region; for the entire population, it’s 112 per 100,000.
Then why the shutdown of schools?
Test what works
The fear, of course, was that children would be excessive transmitters. But although the fear of children spreading the virus is a worthy consideration, that fear also is a risk that, to a great extent, can be controlled.
In Taiwan, parents take their children’s temperatures every morning and report it to the school. The children wear masks all day, except at lunch. During lunch, students sit at their desks with a plastic barrier that stands on three sides of the top of the desk. The children are schooled every day on how to wash their hands.
The point here is Taiwan and other places have experimented and implemented steps to reduce risks with children. In Florida and most other states, we just shut down the schools with the expectation of letting parents and children simply deal with it.
To be sure, people often can and will adjust to the new conditions. But at what cost?
In Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan for recovery, the only reference to K-12 schools was this: “The Department of Education should develop a plan to phase-in education, safely, during the summer months to provide supplemental education for closing achievement gaps for early learning through K-12 students who may need additional supports due to COVID-19 school closures.”
Although the governor might be scoring accolades for Florida’s control of the pandemic, he, his task force and state education officials are failing in moving to address what will be three more months of challenges for families with school-age children.
If the state won’t open schools, except for remedial instruction, this is an opportunity for districts to experiment, to test what might be the new reality and to meet the needs of the families whose parents need to go to work and are unable to be their children’s school teachers at the same time.