Opinion

Why Schools Need to be Reopened

Written by Melanie Burkholder, PhD

Draconian lockdowns have gone on for far too long. On this dreary day as I type, my kids have been out of school for 356 days. We are dangerously close to an entire school year without our California Constitutionally required in-person learning for secondary students.

Our children are suffering and the refusal of the governor to provide science and data to extend the shutdowns is further evidence that there is probably little data to support his measures. However, there is evidence that participation in youth athletics and attending school during COVID19 is beneficial.

Athletics are known to be a natural mood-lifter and overall well-being enhancer to the athletes’ psyche. Lower amounts of depression, anxiety, suicide and obesity are also associated with exercising. Luckily, there are at least 45 other states that are not locked down, and from which we can analyze data.

One study at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health had 30,000 high school student athletes participate in a survey. This study revealed that not only were student athletes less likely to get the virus while participating in sports, but also that the 14-17 year old participants were MORE likely to get the virus at home. The student athletes had lower rates of COVID-19 than all of their community members. Further, the study indicated no single sport is any more dangerous than the other, which begs the question of IF the tiered approach to opening sports is effective.

Attending in-person learning increases collaboration, social skills, achievement in education and adds to normal growth and development. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), as many as 2.8 million children ages 12-17 in the United States have at least one major depressive episode in a year. Approximately 80% of children with an anxiety disorder and 60% with depression are not treated, according to the ADAA.

The grim reality of this situation is that we are losing our children to endless screen time, social isolation and suicide. In fact, two suicides occurred in the Carlsbad Unified School District (CUSD) since the lockdown of schools and sports.

According to the quantitative standard for satisfactory academic progress, there has been a 30% decrease in grades in English and Math. According to a public records request, CUSD saw an over 300% increase in D’s and F’s during two grading periods. Distance learning does not work for the majority of the secondary students.

What are the overarching consequences of continued isolation? We are going to have a generation of kids who have missed their opportunity to develop naturally through socialization and collaboration. We are going to have a mental health pandemic and we are going to see an increase in crime, truancy, abuse, neglect and food-insecurity. How do I know this? Because it’s already happening.

Police are reporting more mental health contacts than they have ever seen. Victim Advocates in the District Attorney’s office have already served 1000 more domestic violence victims compared to the same time pre COVID-19. Hospitals, like Rady Children’s, are reporting an increase in consults for mental health issues for pediatricians. The suicide hotline has seen an increase in calls and, unfortunately, we are experiencing all of those things at the same time.

The circumstances are grim indeed. And, to add salt to the wound, the elementary schools are fully open and have been since September 2020. It begs the question: Are those teachers somehow less valuable than the middle and high school teachers? Is the COVID-19 virus so smart that it knows to stay away from elementary teachers and staff? Are those brave teachers sacrificial lambs or mercenaries? And, above everything else, elementary school students are much less likely to attempt or commit suicide. In 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) revealed a suicide rate of 0.17 per 100,000 youth between the ages of 5 and 11 years, in contrast to a rate of 5.18 per 100,000 among adolescents 12-17 years of age.

Fast forward to 2021: we know that the CDC has data that indicates one in four youths have had suicidal thoughts during this lockdown. In San Diego County alone, there were 11 child deaths from suicide from March 2020 to December 2020. Unfortunately, we know firsthand that the number has increased by at least two.

Yet, despite the cries for schools to be open to support the total educational experience and to relieve some of the mental health issues, let us not forget the underserved population. And let us not forget those who are struggling academically and don’t have access to private rooms, high speed internet, exceptional nutrition or nurturing and positive parenting. What about the population of children who are being preyed upon online, or worse yet, are experiencing violence, abuse or neglect because of someone in their own home? According to the District Attorney’s office, sex-trafficking and other cyber-crimes are at all time highs with children being the primary victims. In June alone, there were 3200 cyber tips regarding child pornography or sex trafficking. As referenced previously, Rady Children’s Hospital’s Child Abuse Pediatric Consult Teams have had an 82% increase in consult cases. According to the hospital therapists, parents are experiencing an increase in anxiety and depressed symptoms. Bottom line: Child exploitation is exacerbated by school closures, mandated reporters are not seeing the students to report the abuses and struggling parents are trying to keep it all together. School closures don’t work for anyone.

Technology challenges, abuse and neglect vulnerabilities and social- emotional barriers to learning have been mentioned. But, quite possibly the most egregious aspect of distance learning is that it is creating a deeper divide in equity in learning. Wealthier families have simply placed their students in private school or have used tutors. Those without means have students who are trailing behind. Keeping schools closed for those who are vulnerable is only creating a deeper gap in providing the right to an equal education, which, as mentioned, is mandated by the California Constitution. In sum, the challenges are not borne equally. Students of color who live in poverty, or who have chronic health conditions or disabilities experience disproportionate consequences of distance learning.

Let me be very clear. Full-time, in-person instruction is the best way to alleviate many of these issues facing our district’s children: your children, your grandchildren. Experts from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that it is more important to open schools than to attempt to mitigate every safety measure that the state, local and county health authorities request. Ultimately, we have examples of 45 other states which have returned to in-person instruction without experiencing outbreaks. We

can do it as well. It’s time to take politics out of education and put our children first.

In closing, if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or gestures, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK. There is a suicide screening questionnaire from the National Institute for Mental Health available at www.nimh.nih.gov. As always, be well, my friends.