For months, our social media feeds have been exploding with intense debate about whether kids should go back to school, and if so, how they should go back. Many parents feel helpless because they must return to work but don’t have a safe place to put their kids during the day. They need schools to reopen so they can work to keep food on the table. Others feel that under no circumstances should kids go back to school, that the only answer is some form of distance learning.
So often, the focus of these debates is on the children and the parents—teachers are frequently left out of the conversation, or they’re mentioned as a side note. Sometimes they’re even told to “suck it up.” Other essential workers have had to work even when they felt unsafe, so why shouldn’t teachers? And many seem to feel that since kids often don’t show symptoms of COVID, they simply are not carriers. Not only has this been proven to be untrue, but a new study published in Annals of Internal Medicine (a journal published by the American College of Physicians), found that 50% of teachers are at very high risk of developing severe illness if infected with COVID-19.
We need to consider the impact that going back to school will have on teachers. Understanding the risk doesn’t only help answer the question of whether or not schools should be open, but it also should inform policy makers regarding the measures they take to protect teachers.
The study looked to determine the risk levels for teachers re-entering the classroom as well as for parents who have school-age kids at home. In other words, given that we know that children can indeed be carriers of COVID-19 whether they are symptomatic or not, what are the risks for the people to whom kids may transmit the virus?
The study analyzed a representative sampling of data from a 2018 National Health Interview survey. Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s criteria to define risk for severe COVID-19 illness, they analyzed the risk level among teachers and adults living with school aged children, accounting for factors like cardiac conditions, obesity, and other underlying health conditions that exacerbate COVID-19 infections. The study found that 39.8% of teachers have “definite” risk of a severe COVID-19 illness, and 50% of teachers have “definite or possible” risk for a severe COVID-19 illness.
Researchers noted that based on the limitations of the information available in the survey from which they gathered their data, they could not identify some high risk factors like chronic kidney disease or thalassemia, conditions which, had they been reported, would’ve pushed the percentage of high-risk population even higher.
The study found similar risk levels for the 79 million adults who live with school age children (i.e., parents and caregivers), and even higher risk for low income households and Black households. The study did not include the 4.4 million people who work at schools in a capacity other than teaching or the 1.6 million daycare workers in the United States.
To summarize, over half of teachers and parents, were they to contract COVID-19, would get very, very ill. Children can act as vectors. They themselves may not get sick, but they may transfer infection from one adult to another, and all the adults around them have a 50% chance of becoming severely ill if they contract COVID-19.
No one refutes that in-person instruction is preferable to distance learning. In general, children learn better and feel better when learning from a person who is physically present. We also know that in this country, many parents rely on school as a form of childcare and for their children to receive one or two meals per day. There are also many kids for whom school is the only place they feel safe. We know that children rarely get severely ill with COVID-19.
But the risk of how many adults could be infected by kids acting as vectors needs to be considered when determining whether and how to go back to school.
This could be a different discussion if teachers returning to school were able to trust in policymakers’ intention to provide the necessary equipment to teach in as safe a way as possible. As it is, teachers are having to fundraise or buy their own personal protective equipment (PPE) in addition to the supplies they’ve already been buying every year with their own money.
The Trump administration has officially designated teachers as essential workers, and yet far too many of our educators are not provided the necessary tools and equipment to do their supposedly essential job safely.
Many parents are in a position where they feel they have no choice but to send their kids to school. And many teachers are in a position in which they feel they have no choice but to teach. We are stuck. So what can parents do to help? In addition to calling and emailing politicians to encourage them to increase funding toward education to make sure teachers are well protected, and to shut down schools when community spread makes it clear we should, parents can help in other small but meaningful ways.
In an age-appropriate manner, we can talk with our children about the risks their teachers are taking by showing up at school every day to teach them. We must emphasize the importance of keeping their masks on whenever required, washing their hands thoroughly, and keeping their distance from others. Can this conversation be traumatic? Yes, of course it’s traumatic. But kids are resilient and they take their cues for how to approach difficult situations from us, so let’s lead with empathy, compassion, and optimism. Besides, what would be far more traumatic is if a kid thought they killed their teacher because they refused to wear their mask because their parent poo-poo’d COVID-19 and told them it wasn’t a big deal.
For those of us who are in a position to keep our kids home for learning, we should do so. For those who are financially privileged (and since our government is apparently not going to do its part), consider donating to organizations like the ClearTheList Foundation that provide supplies to teachers, or simply donate needed supplies directly to nearby schools.
Above all, we all need to remember that there is no perfect solution here. Many, many people have been put into a position of feeling like they have no control, no choice over the immediate future of their child’s schooling. We can place the blame squarely on the current administration for downplaying the severity of the outbreak early on, and we can shout angrily into the wind all we want about that, but this is our current reality. Be kind to one another, listen to scientists and health experts when they give us the science, and acknowledge that many, especially teachers, are taking risks they would rather not take. The least we can do, and unfortunately sometimes the only thing we can do, is to mitigate those risks wherever and whenever we can.
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