Save schools and hospitals: Close what is actually spreading the virus!
Save schools and hospitals: Close what is actually spreading the virus!
Dear Mayor Hogsett and Dr. Caine:
We urge you to rescind Section 32 of Public Health Order 35 (“PHO 35”) as it relates to the closure of Marion County elementary schools, by December 4, 2020, to give local school districts, boards, and school leaders the autonomy to reopen for in-person learning should they deem it safe. Section 32 requires all schools in Marion County to cease in-person instruction and begin virtual learning no later than November 25, 2020, through January 15, 2021, effectively shuttering in-person education for all school-age children for no less than eight-weeks.
Children, parents, and teachers should not be required to bear the brunt of a lockdown.
Section 32’s blanket closure of schools in an attempt to control COVID-19 stands in stark contrast to the fact that drinking at bars, going to gyms, gathering 25 friends indoors, and in-person dining is still permitted. The quality of our children’s education — as well as their safety, nutritional, and emotional needs — is being sacrificed in order to create the appearance that efforts are being made to stop the rising number of infections in Marion County. While we commend you for adopting stricter requirements than those of the State, as working parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals, and parents who believe that children are better off in a school setting, we are morally obligated to point out that Section 32 of PHO 35 will do more harm than it seeks to prevent, and will not restrict physical interactions in a way that has been proven to reduce community transmissions.
The data do not support that elementary schools are contributing to the rise in cases.
The data show that children and teachers are at far greater risk of contracting the virus at sporting events, overnights, house parties, and family gatherings than they are at school. Indoor restaurants, gyms, and other crowded indoor venues account for eight (8) in ten (10) of all new COVID-19 infections. However, when appropriate safety protocols are in place, school transmissions in the classroom are extremely rare. Dr. Caine herself acknowledged there was no evidence that spread within schools were a cause for concern, but rather PHO 35 was necessary because too many teachers were having to quarantine—which created staffing issues. This admission undermines any claim that Section 32 of PHO 35 is narrowly tailored to slow the spread of COVID-19. To the extent an individual school is faced with a shortage of teachers, that school’s leadership is best suited to craft a solution that serves the best interest of teachers and students alike.
It is important to note the proportion of front-line health workers who have elementary school age children. A study released by the University of Chicago shows that 27.4% of healthcare workers have a child under the age of 14 with no available caregiver. Section 32 of PHO 35 will only exacerbate already dire staffing issues in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, effectively reducing our State’s hospital bed capacity, and in turn have an adverse impact on public health.
Children and teachers are safe in the classroom with strict mask protocols in place. When schools are shuttered, however, working parents often have no choice but to send their children to other households or facilities while they’re at work where we lose assurance that similar safety protocols are being adhered to.
School children and parents are being asked to sacrifice while the City actively seeks opportunities to attract potential super-spreading events like basketball tournaments.
The continued efforts and focus of our City to bring in tourists for large sporting events like the NCAA college basketball tournament, while consulting health care professionals to advise on safe ways to conduct them, highlights the misplaced priorities of Section 32. If guidance from health care experts is to be sought, that guidance should be focused first on how to keep our teachers and children safe in schools.
Local school districts, boards, and heads of schools should be allowed autonomy to make their own decisions about whether to keep schools open.
All public school districts have locally elected boards that make decisions about what is in the best interest of their children, teachers, and schools. Private and parochial schools have boards and principals with the same authority. A blanket school closure would disproportionately affect our most vulnerable students—those in grades K-5. All available evidence suggests that local schools are fully equipped to handle this pandemic in a way that minimizes risks to children and teachers.
All children have a constitutional right to an education.
There is also a substantial legal question about the constitutional authority of Section 32 that shutters in-person access to Marion County schools for no less than eight weeks. Art. 8, § 1 of the Indiana Constitution guarantees to all children a general and uniform system of education. That Section embodies the fundamental right to a free education in the State of Indiana. Traditional schools, unlike specially accredited online schools, are unable to provide a uniform system of education to all their students using virtual platforms.
It has been well-established that virtual learning pales in comparison to in-person learning for several reasons. First, a large number of students throughout Marion County lack reliable access to the requisite technology for remote learning. Despite efforts of many schools to make devices and connectivity available, many students are still unable to engage in virtual learning. Younger students often require adult assistance that is not consistently available. There is substantial evidence that the majority of students facing these particular hardships in virtual learning are children of color. Students in general, regardless of race or ethnicity, have suffered significant academic decline in the wake of the spring 2020 shutdowns. One study estimated that students would return to school in the fall with “roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.” Similarly, a study released by Stanford University estimates that the Spring shutdowns cost Indiana students an average of 129 days of reading and 208 days of math learning.
When virtual learning began this fall in the Indianapolis Public School system, only 70% of the student body was in attendance. In fact, after schools had been open for weeks this fall, the IPS Superintendent, Aleesia Johnson, reported that between 15-20% of the computers and MiFi sites had not been picked up by parents. Virtual learning simply does not equate to in-person instruction, and thus when Marion County schools are closed, the county’s students are deprived of their fundamental constitutional right to a uniform system of education.
National health care leaders are calling on local governments to do all they can to “keep the schools open.”
In addition to its constitutional flaws, Section 32 of PHO 35 is unsound public health policy. In one sweeping act, and without any opportunity for public comment, the City of Indianapolis has shut down all schools across Marion County. President-elect Biden’s coronavirus taskforce, co-chair Vivek Murthy, stated that when restrictions are overly severe, they not only lead to weakened compliance, but also provide “very little public health gain”.
On Nov. 17, 2020, in an interview with CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that in many cases schools can and should be kept open safely. “[W]e should be trying to keep the children in school as safely as we possibly can.” Dr. Fauci discouraged a “one size fits all” type of closing model.
Perhaps even more compelling is the recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
"The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families. The disproportionate impact this has had on Black, Latinx, and Native American/Alaskan Native children and adolescents must also be recognized."
In addition to the physical, mental and social setbacks that children will suffer as mere side-effects of school closures, the act of virtual learning on screens may cause significant and permanent damage to our students. A study done by the National Institutes of Health showed two major findings of equal concern:
• MRI scans found significant differences in the brains of some children who reported using smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven hours a day; and
• Children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests.
Section 32 of PHO 35 will not only fail in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Indianapolis without implementing other known restrictions, but it is actually likely to cause public health harm to Marion County students.
There are several ways the City can help protect its citizens from the spread of COVID-19, but mandating the blanket closure of elementary schools robs children of their emotional, social, physical, and educational needs and does not achieve the desired government interest in protecting public health. We ask that you reconsider and rescind Section 32 of PHO 35 as soon as December 4, 2020, so that individual schools and their governing bodies can make decisions that are in the best interest of the teachers and students within their care.
Indy Schools Matter*
*A nonprofit aimed at restoring autonomy to Marion County Schools in the wake of the pandemic
 https://twitter.com/IndyMayorJoe/status/1328402415696179200 Nov. 16, 2020