Our elementary and secondary schools will reopen this fall. During these past months of disruption, dismay, and despair, I have never once doubted it. There really is no practical alternative to reopening schools. Life, work, and education must proceed.
Nevertheless, I understand why some parents are concerned about keeping their children safe. We should all be concerned about their safety.
So, if circumstances are such that a parent or caregiver can watch the children without the household sacrificing too much income, families might to consider homeschooling as a safe and sustainable option — a purposeful, well-crafted homeschooling program, that is, not something jury-rigged during an emergency shutdown.
After all, for every trip a child takes to and from school, there is a small but worrisome risk of death on the road.
According to the National Safety Council, the rate of fatality by motor-vehicle accident is about 19 deaths per one million children between the ages of five and 14. Even more concerning is the death rate among those aged 15 to 24: 150 per million.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Highway safety has actually improved over time. Forty years ago, death rates were much higher: 107 per million for young children and 471 per million for older teens and young adults. So, we have experienced astounding improvement in safety. But risk remains. And I would never fault those who worry about it.
If, however, parents were comfortable sending their children to school on buses or cars before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now say they are unwilling to send their children back to school — or to gymnastics, band practice, soccer leagues, or swimming pools — until the coronavirus threat is essentially extinguished, I would gently but firmly question whether they have properly assessed the relevant risks.
According to an analysis of federal data by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, the rate of deaths associated with COVID-19 are as follows: 0.15 per million for children age 5 to 14 and 1.37 per million for those age 15 to 24. These risks qualify as exceedingly low. In the context of other dangers our children face when they venture from home, such risks would be unlikely to change anyone’s behavior if considered in a sober, dispassionate manner.
Yes, I am aware that there could be lingering health consequences for young people who survive a bout of COVID-19. But non-fatal injuries and permanent damage caused by auto accidents are, again, very likely to be greater by an order of magnitude.
And, no, I am not making light of the seriousness of highway accidents by drawing the comparison. I have more than one friend who has tragically lost a child in a car crash. I have other friends and close relatives who have been permanently maimed or disfigured by accidents on the highway.
Some will argue that the real risk of reopening schools is not to the students but to their teachers, school employees, and the parents and grandparents the children might infect when they get home. They think this is a compelling argument, I know, but its empirical support is very shaky.
Moreover, no one is suggesting schools open without precautions. There will be lots of cleaning, distancing, and personal protective equipment for staff. Some activities requiring close contact may be limited. And we should all take extra precautions to protect the elderly and infirm from infection.
But let’s be clear about this. The initial mandatory closures of our schools, businesses, and other institutions were not sold as eliminating the threat from COVID-19, either to children or to adults. That is not possible. The threat can only be mitigated somewhat until therapies or vaccines are broadly available, and even then a background risk may remain as it does for many other dangerous illnesses.
A fall without elementary and secondary schools welcoming students back to campus is a fall of lost educational opportunity, bleak economic prospects, and pervasive social disruption. Such a plan would be far, far too risky.