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Adults owe it to kids to make in-person schooling a priority

In the debate between CPS and CTU, the comparison isn’t between transmission in schools and zero transmission — it’s between transmission risk in school vs. out. The evidence supports keeping schools open.

A woman holds up a sign in favor of students returning to school as members of the Chicago Teachers Union hold a car caravan around City Hall against in-person learning.
A woman holds up a sign in favor of students returning to school as members of the Chicago Teachers Union hold a car caravan around City Hall against in-person learning.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

As Disney tells it, Rapunzel is a princess whose hair has magical healing powers. Eager to take that good health for herself, the heartless Mother Gothel locks her up in a tower. Because kids will be kids, Rapunzel gets out, through the combined effects of that hair and teen romance, and she lives happily ever after. Mother Gothel turns to dust.

Here’s what my teenagers, both Chicago Public Schools high school students, have been doing since their schools closed last Wednesday. One has been playing The Sims in her bedroom nearly nonstop. The other has spent time with friends, who attend different CPS high schools. They’ve gone shopping, eaten food, and hung out together.

Such are the alternatives for teenagers: the lonely seclusion of Rapunzel or normal adolescent social behavior in spaces unsupervised by adults. Tower or garden of thorns.

Are they safer than they would be in school? I doubt it. Are you safer with them, and some 300,000 other CPS students, out of school? I doubt that too.

In this stand-off between CPS administration and the Chicago Teachers Union, it’s important to keep in mind that schools are the safest places for kids to be.

What about the numbers?

First, COVID numbers are being used as a proxy measure for health. Health, like education, is a complex phenomenon and cannot be quantified using any one number. When policy-makers need to compare outcomes, though, some measure can be better than none. The mistake is believing that any proxy number gives us definitive information about what we actually care about: serious harm and death. In early 2020, when the understanding of COVID was limited and case rates tightly tied to death rates, case rates were a reasonable proxy for public health. Online schooling made sense.

Now, prominent epidemiologists say we need to shift public health aims from “zero COVID” to long-term management strategies, treating COVID as one of many public health hazards.

By early 2021, as vaccines became available, studies started to show that online schooling was itself having pernicious effects on children. Suicide rates are up dramatically, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Children, especially lower-income, Black and Brown children, are falling behind and even leaving schools entirely. This, in itself, is likely to negatively affect their health across their entire lives, as educational attainment correlates with lifelong health outcomes. If we care about children’s health, online school is not an acceptable replacement.

So suppose online schooling is not a great option in any long-term way. Even worse, at this moment, is an overwhelmed hospital system. So shouldn’t kids should stay home? Not necessarily. Policy decisions are about comparing X to Y. The comparison now isn’t between transmission in schools and zero transmission — it’s between transmission risk in school vs. out.

Here, evidence supports keeping schools open, with mitigations. Multiple studies indicate that transmission in schools has been significantly lower than transmission outside of schools. COVID is found in schools, but kids are more likely to catch it elsewhere than they are to transmit it in school. The devil is in the details, of course. None of this answers the question of what CPS and the CTU should do exactly to open schools. It does, however, point to what the Chicago community should aim to accomplish: kids in schools.

Outside school, kids are spending time with friends — often not wearing masks. Or they’re home, many with family members whose workplaces are less safe than schools. Or they’re with alternative caretakers, in a city where about 75% of adults are fully vaccinated but 96% of CPS teachers are.

In a city full of guns, some kids are succumbing to despair. So are their parents. Domestic abuse is almost certainly up.

For nearly two years, adults have been asking Rapunzel to stay in that tower. Rapunzel herself has the magical healing powers of her youthful immune system. Two years in, millions of Rapunzels are languishing or else heading into the thorns with their friends.

Adults owe it to kids to prioritize in-person schooling, or we may all turn to dust.

Amy Shuffelton is a parent of two CPS high school students and a professor of philosophy and of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago.

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