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Suzanne Nicastro: We must stop misleading ourselves, failing our children
Guest Commentary

Suzanne Nicastro: We must stop misleading ourselves, failing our children

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It’s troubling for me to witness the rather myopic view many Californians continue to hold regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic did not just affect Californians but also affected billions of humans across the globe.

In fact, 1.5 billion school-age children were sent home from their classrooms between February and April of 2020 due to the pandemic. 56.4 million of these children were in the U.S. with 50.8 million of these students attending a public school. Roughly 6 million of these children are California students.

What has happened to these 6 million public school children in California during the past 11 months?

The regional variations regarding in-person vs. virtual learning has now created an inequitable and troubling U.S. educational system. For example, Texas and Florida began offering full time, in-person learning to all grades for more than 75% of its students by October of 2020.

California, in contrast, still had 90% of its students learning online in October, 2020.

Clearly U.S. politics has played a significant role in school closures. This fact becomes even more disturbing when one considers the global way in which other nations addressed educating their children during the pandemic. These nations did not “indefinitely” close their schools. They actually took the opposite approach. While realizing that obstacles would continue to present and that pandemic surges would ebb and flow, European and Asian leaders led their countries with in-person learning being a “top priority.”

By doing so, Europe and Asia largely stayed clear of controversy from parents or teachers about reopening schools after the spring’s initial COVID-19 wave… or whether to keep schools open or closed as the virus returns.

European countries followed the scientific evidence and advice from experts who contended that the public health risks of keeping children out of school were serious, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to say, “There will be dramatic social consequences,” if schools are closed. Instead of closing public schools, Germanys’ bars, restaurants, theatres, concert halls, gyms, and tattoo parlors were closed in the country. Other European countries agreed with this approach.

In October, 2020, Michael Martin, Ireland’s Prime Minister said, “We cannot and will not allow our children and young people’s futures to be another victim of this disease. They need and deserve their full education.” In most European countries, schools began re-opening in June, 2020, with short term closures occurring during regional outbreaks since re-opening. Most of Europe’s unified focus continues to support a safe “in-person school learning program for its children.”

Today and the Future

Have our leaders in California considered the long term costs of our schools remaining closed? The National Center for Biotechnology Information, an organization that is funded by the U.S. government and is a branch of the National Institutes of Health, shared a American Medical Association journal study in November, 2020.

The study included actuarial findings regarding possible, future, adverse affects of U.S. school closures. This decision analytical model found that missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 5.53 million years of total life lost. This loss in life expectancy was likely to be greater than would have been observed if leaving primary schools open had led to an expansion of the first wave of the pandemic.

In other words, these findings suggest that the decision to close U.S. public primary schools in the early months of 2020 may very well be associated with a decrease in life expectancy for U.S. children in the future that is greater than any loss of life the pandemic might have brought.

So yes, I’m angry. Really angry. We know too much now to continue to support universal school closures at the primary level. We must stop lying to ourselves and to our children. Elementary schools remain closed because adults couldn’t pull it together. Classrooms are not closed to protect children. They are closed because of a faulty thought process which promoted the idea that ‘closed elementary schools will protect the community.’ A thought process, by the way, that is not supported by current science.

Although the risks of keeping schools open drove decisions made in the early phases of the pandemic, the probable harm to children associated with school closure continues to be less explicitly discussed. Why is this? Why are Californians avoiding this discussion? Perhaps it’s because political figures and media outlets have purposely manipulated public debate toward pitting “school closures” against “lives saved,” or the education of children against the health of the community.

Presenting the tradeoffs in this way obscures the very real health consequences of interrupted education. These consequences are especially dire for young children. There is little reason to scientifically believe that virtual learning environments can be effective for primary school–aged children.

Of course, keeping schools open ‘at any price’ is also faulty science. If an in-person school experiences an outbreak, quarantine is necessary and safe practice. Children and families with co-morbidities will need to make different choices. However, to keep all primary schools closed, with the ‘chance’ that an outbreak might happen is cowardly and irresponsible. Worse, it tells our children that the adults who are responsible for their education care more about themselves than they do the children they are tasked to educate. It communicates that fear and anxiety drive adult decisions, even when science tells a different story.

The lies that led to the continued closure of elementary schools in the state of California may have begun innocently. However, the lies must now stop. Science is no longer driving this decision. Fear, anxiety, incompetence, and adult selfishness is keeping classroom doors closed today. These closed doors are further driving inequitable policies for our most fragile students. Students whose very lives will be cut short due to future risk factors that are only escalating with each day of a closed classroom.

It’s time to embrace truth and science again. It’s time to open California’s public schools. NOW. Not next week. Not next Month. NOW. Any public, elementary school that is unprepared to open safely, 11 months after officially closing last March, should be held accountable by taxpayers. Every day, every hour, every minute that goes by with a child being deprived of in person learning, is unacceptable in a nation that calls itself “the greatest nation on earth.”

We must stop misleading ourselves. We must stop failing our children. It will be too late for some…even now. Let’s not make it too late for more by continuing to allow special interest groups (and a growing number of anxiety ridden adults) to ignore Science and further damage our children’s future.

Suzanne Nicastro is the Superintendent/Principal of a Manzanita Public Charter School on Vandenberg Air Force Base.

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