Open Rocky River Schools for Fall of 2020

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Dear Superintendent Shoaf and Rocky River School Board,

We, the undersigned parents of Rocky River public schoolchildren, urge you to reject the Cuyahoga County Board of Health’s recommendation that our classrooms remain physically closed at the beginning of the fall semester. That recommendation ignores the overwhelming, scientific evidence that reopening schools does not increase the spread of the novel coronavirus among children or adults.  The recommendation also disregards the overwhelming evidence that children learn less when schools are physically closed, while being at greater risk of abuse, depression, and suicide. Finally, the recommendation ignores the particular circumstances of Rocky River, irrationally lumping together all Cuyahoga County communities and school districts. 

In urging you to reject the Board’s recommendation, we do not claim to be public-health experts. We claim only the capacity, common to the citizens of our community, to evaluate the recommendation in the light of reason, evidence, and shared communal values. As we will show, such an evaluation reveals that the Board’s recommendation is defective in four major ways. Any of the four defects would alone justify our rejecting it; the combination of the four compels us to reject it.

1.      The Recommendation Ignores the Overwhelming, Uncontroverted Evidence that the Virus Does Not Present a Significant Health Danger to School-age Children

COVID-19 is not an equal-opportunity health threat. It discriminates, strongly, against the elderly. According to the CDC, of the almost 136,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19, over 124,000, or more than 90%, were at least 55 years old. By contrast, only 244, or less than 0.2%, were younger than 25. And, even among the young, most suffered from identifiable comorbidities such as diabetes, obesity or other causes of respiratory difficulty.

Of course, the loss of 244 young people is tragic. But we cannot make intelligent decisions based on such a figure without placing it in the context of other health risks that young people face as part of everyday life. We therefore must take note of the fact that, since February 1, our country has lost almost 28,000 young people (under age 25) to causes other than COVID-19. And 527 of those deaths were caused by pneumonia, which is also an upper respiratory-tract infection. In other words, regular pneumonia is more than twice as deadly as COVID-19 among school-age children. And yet our society has never concluded that the risk posed to the young by pneumonia is great enough to justify sustained school closings. If we did, our schools would never reopen.

We are astonished that the Board of Health’s recommendation makes no mention of the fact that COVID-19 presents only a statistically small danger to school-age children—smaller than the risk from, for example, pneumonia. The Board’s failure even to mention, let alone grapple with, that fact casts serious doubt on the proposition that its recommendation is worthy of our deference.

2.      The Recommendation Ignores the Overwhelming Evidence that Reopening Schools Is Not Dangerous to Adults

We know that the new coronavirus does not present a great danger to school-age children, at least as “danger” is normally understood. But what about adults? If we reopen schools to students, will we impose an unreasonable risk on teachers who share classrooms with them, and on parents who share homes with them? Fortunately, there is a vast amount of evidence available to help us answer that question. And the overwhelmingly weight of that evidence says that the answer is no. 

Consider Europe. Like most U.S. states, countries across Europe imposed broad lockdowns in March and April. Once, however, European health ministers realized that the new coronavirus presented no elevated health risk to children, 22 European countries promptly reopened their schools. The first was Denmark, which reopened on April 15th; it was quickly followed by France, Germany, and many others. This mass reopening of schools offered a real-world test of the hypothesis that bringing schoolchildren together in classrooms increases the spread of the virus in the community generally. And the results squarely refute this hypothesis. As reported by The Guardian, “the reopening of schools in 22 European countries has not led to any significant increase in coronavirus infections among children, parents, or staff.”

The reason that the reopening of schools does not spread the virus is simple: not only do children tend not to contract the virus, but they also tend not to give it to others. An article from the August 2020 edition of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, summarizes multiple studies on child transmission from Switzerland, Sweden, France, and Australia. The studies all find that children rarely spread the disease to one another or to adults. The article concludes: “Almost 6 months into the pandemic, accumulating evidence and collective experience argue that children, particularly school-aged children, are far less important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 transmission than adults.”

Based on the strength of these multiple studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has reached the only available conclusion that is based on a rational weighing of the evidence.  As it notes on its website: “The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

Remarkably, the Board of Health has made no mention of the European experience, or of the multiple studies relied upon by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Instead, the Board has cited only a single study from South Korea that concluded, based on contact tracing, that children ages 10 to 19 may be as likely to spread the virus as adults. Notably, that study looked only at transmissions between January 20th and March 27th, when the virus was still in its initial stage of spread. By contrast, the European reopening experience, and the data from the studies summarized in Pediatrics, all are more recent. In addition, the authors of the South Korean study acknowledged an important limitation, namely that they could not rule out the possibility that household members exposed to a child aged 10 to 19 were actually infected by someone else.

Why would the Board of Health engage in this strange form of cherry-picking, selecting one study, based on older data, to support a school-closure recommendation while ignoring many more studies, based on more recent data and experience, that support the opposite recommendation? We hesitate to speculate about motives, but we also feel no obligation to defer to a recommendation by a board that has failed even to mention, let alone grapple with, the fact that the most of the real-world evidence and studies contradict the notion that school reopenings pose a meaningful danger to children or adults.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the Board of Health appears to be cherry-picking (or perhaps “lemon-picking”) not only across studies, but also among findings within the same study. Although the Korean study found that older children might spread the virus as often as adults do, it also found that children younger than age 10 are far less likely than adults to spread the virus. Therefore, even if we were to credit only that particular study (as the Board evidently has done), the logical conclusion would be that schools can safely reopen at the levels of preschool through third grade. Yet the Board’s recommendation makes no such distinction, and instead irrationally urges the closing of all grade levels. Indeed, the Board did not even mention the Korean study’s finding regarding younger children. We consider this selective presentation of information, along with the inconsistent application of studies, to be the opposite of science-based, reason-based, and evidence-based decision-making. Again, we are forced to conclude that the Board’s recommendation is not worthy of our deference.

3.      The Recommendation Ignores the Overwhelming Evidence that Closing Schools Is More Dangerous for Children than Opening Them

Even if closing schools had health benefits (and, as we note, the available evidence indicates that it does not), such benefits must be weighed against the costs. And those costs are large and unambiguous.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is already evidence of harm to children from the school shutdowns last spring. Time away from school causes social isolation and makes it harder for schools to identify young victims of physical abuse, substance abuse, and depression. The director of the CDC recently told Congress that online learning is associated with an increase in adolescent drug use and suicide. Moreover, there is strong evidence that online learning is less effective than in-person learning, introducing achievement gaps that may be difficult to close later.

As parents of children forced to learn online this spring, such evidence of the deficiencies of remote learning comes as no surprise to us. We have seen that children are less motivated to learn on line, since they can more easily get a passing grade without engaging with the class material. And we now have a much greater appreciation of the benefits to students—especially struggling students—of the individualized, face-to-face attention from teachers that occurs only in person.

We find it remarkable that the Board of Health did not even mention these costs from continued school closings, let alone attempt to explain why they are outweighed by the purported health benefits. We do not believe we owe deference to a board that has made no apparent effort to weigh both sides of an issue, or, if it has, to explain how it reached the conclusion that one side outweighs the other.

4.      The Recommendation Irrationally Treats All Cuyahoga-County School Districts as the Same

The main piece of evidence that the Board cited in support of its recommendation was an increase in the number and rate of positive SARS-CoV-2 tests in Cuyahoga County in July. Based on this increase in positive tests, the Board issued a blanket recommendation applicable to all school districts in the county. Yet Cuyahoga County is a large and diverse place. Its 1240 square miles encompass 38 distinct cities, 19 villages, and 3 townships. Notably, the Board did not attempt to show that the increase in observed positive tests is distributed evenly across the county’s many school districts, rather than being concentrated in just a few. We therefore see no justification for its view that such a diverse set of communities should be the subject of a common recommendation, simply because they all happen to fall within a county whose boundaries were drawn two centuries ago.

The citizens of Rocky River need to make a decision that makes sense for our own children, based on factors specific to Rocky River. You, our superintendent and school board, have done a wonderful job preparing our schools to reopen in the fall. You have created schedules that achieve social distancing. You have installed new ventilation systems to impede the indoor spread of viruses. You have created special accommodations for persons with health conditions that place them at elevated risk. The Board of Health, in its county-wide recommendation, has recognized none of these efforts, but rather has lumped Rocky River in with school districts that have lacked either the resources or the initiative to accomplish all that you have accomplished. Ultimately, the Board of Health’s recommendation is just that—a recommendation. The citizens and parents of Rocky River must decide whether adopting it makes sense for our city and our children. And the answer, clearly, is no.

Sincerely yours