The pandemic’s impact has been unequal from the beginning. Studies have shown that race/ethnicity and low socioeconomic condition are major predictors of morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19. Blacks and Latinxs are disproportionately represented among “essential” workers and thus face higher odds of contracting COVID-19 than those who can work from home. Blacks in particular have experienced higher infection and mortality rates than other groups. Measures to curb the spread are also hitting economically marginalized families hardest.
As expected, case numbers have started to creep up across the country over the past month, but schools are not “super-spreaders.” Meanwhile, available data suggest that educational gains will not be comparable with remote learning, and the mental health of children and families is already suffering. Children are missing peer interactions, parents are trying to do their jobs while supporting their frustrated, lonely children with remote learning, and the pressure of all this is leading to toxic stress. In particular, children of families living in unstable circumstances cannot learn effectively without the structure and routine school provides. These families rely on the public school system.
For months now, daycare centers have been open, and most private schools are also offering in-person instruction, particularly at the elementary level. The reason is simple. Working families need in-person care for their young children. Following the experience of remote learning in the spring, there were predictions that private schools would not survive the pandemic, with families choosing to put their tuition dollars toward in-home childcare. If all learning is remote, the thinking went, parents would be less willing to pay for private school. In fact, what we are seeing is the opposite. This fall, 39 states have no order in place with regard to opening schools. The way this is playing out is that private schools are re-opening in many areas where public schools are not.
This public-private gap goes beyond the classroom. In many parts of the country, most public spaces have been shuttered, including playgrounds, museums, and libraries. However, private activities are open to children (masked and socially distanced). Orchards and pumpkin patches with play structures identical to those on public playgrounds are open to those who can afford to pay. And many private sports and other activities for children are running. If it is possible for these private activities to safely reopen, funding is needed for public spaces to open with similar precautions.
As the African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” So families are forming “learning pods,” with several students gathering together under the supervision of a pod teacher; they are creating their own little villages. It is typical for a pod teacher to charge $10-20 per hour per child. At this rate, families are spending upwards of $2,000 per month for the childcare needed to support remote public education, more than the cost of many private schools. This price tag is a stretch for some public school families and an impossibility for the rest. And private schools, as well as businesses that offer activities for children, are also offering pods. In these commercial pods, a dozen or more children sit in a room together, masked, 6 feet apart, with laptops out and headphones on, learning remotely, supervised by an adult. In fact, some public school districts that are offering no in-person instruction are using their school buildings as “remote learning supervision sites.”
The pods that have sprung up in response to school closures are comparable to the schools that are open in terms of COVID-19 transmission risk. Meanwhile, public health costs of remote learning are numerous and include:
- Academic progress is hindered, particularly for vulnerable children.
- Lack of peer interaction is detrimental to social and emotional development.
- Toxic stress has longterm effects on physical and mental health.
- Screen time has negative effects on sleep, cognitive development and cardiovascular health in children. While this data is not specific to remote learning, normalizing hours of daily screen time for young children is concerning.
From a public health standpoint, remote learning is a net loss. Schools are essential, and we need to prioritize their safe opening. Undoubtedly, opening schools and playgrounds without proper public health measures will result in outbreaks. There are thoughtful and epidemiologically-informed guidelines on how schools could be opened safely; implementing these plans requires funding.
Epidemiologic predictions indicate a second wave for COVID-19, as well as future pandemics. It will be shameful to ignore the impact these will have in continuing to lay bare existing educational disparities.