COMMENTARY: Get Students Back in School

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Barbara Mandrell once sang, “I was country, when country wasn’t cool.” I understood what she meant recently on a different topic: resuming in-person learning at schools.

I have been calling for schools to reopen since last summer. Now, the Biden Administration indicates it is moving in that direction. Further, on February 5 Governor Northam issued a statement urging the same outcome, calling on Virginia’s K-12 schools to plan for in-person learning options by March 15.

I am glad to see the governor join this effort. Reopening schools is in the best interest of students and their families. It is supported by scientific data and expert opinion.

For example, in a June 23, 2020 hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee on responding to the coronavirus pandemic, then-Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Robert Redfield said reopening schools would be a “jurisdiction to jurisdiction decision” and that the CDC would roll out guidelines for doing so safely.

Also, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said much the same.

Having participated in this hearing and listening to these comments, I introduced a resolution a few days later urging that schools be allowed to decide whether to return in person at the local level. I knew this was an important issue for Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District, which had remote learning imposed on it by the Commonwealth even though its COVID infection rates at the time were much lower than in other parts of Virginia.

More than six months later, President Biden’s new Director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told reporters at a White House briefing, “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated.”

These voices support calls from the American Academy of Pediatrics from last summer strongly urging the resumption of in-person learning for the health and well-being of children. It has noted the lower rates of virus transmission among young people and the importance being in school has on childhood development. Among the benefits provided by being in school: “social and emotional skills; safety; reliable nutrition; physical/occupational/speech therapy; mental health services; health services; and opportunities for physical activity.”

Remote learning options – when they are feasible, which is questionable for areas lacking broadband access – simply do not provide the full range of benefits for the well-being of children, including their mental health.

A recent article from the news outlet Axios puts numbers on some of the harm caused by the lack of in-person learning. American students from kindergarten to fifth grade have lost an average of 20 percent of reading skills and 33 percent of math skills compared to what they would have normally learned. An economic analysis puts the long-term damage to the U.S. economy at $14 trillion to $28 trillion.

These numbers astound but still cannot fully convey the damage that lack of in-person learning inflicts on children. Some things cannot be quantified, like the impact on mental health or the socialization that comes when students are around their peers.

Worst of all, indicators such as a doubled suicide rate among teens and children in Clark County, Nevada, during nine months of the pandemic compared to the entire previous year show still more tragic consequence.

Reopening schools does not mean returning exactly as they operated before. Each school district of course must adjust appropriate to its circumstances regarding social distancing, allowances for teachers, staff, and students who may be in a high-risk category for contracting the virus, and other necessities imposed by the pandemic.

One approach could be to have the students in the classroom supervised in person by a teacher’s aide who is not in a high-risk category and does not have comorbidities, while a teacher with a higher risk status could be “Zoomed” into the classroom.

President Biden said after the presidential election that he wanted the majority of schools open by the end of his first 100 days in office. His press secretary on February 9, unfortunately, lowered the bar, saying that this pledge merely meant “teaching at least one day a week in the majority of schools by day 100.”

That’s not good enough. The science has been clear since last summer.

Returning to in-person learning will have difficulties, but the far greater costs of not doing so have been clear. Also clear is the relatively lower rate of transmitting the coronavirus among young people. This should not be a close call.

– Congressman Morgan Griffith

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office.  You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.