How and Why Closing Our Schools Will Help Save Lives
(Editor's note: In a Newsmakers op-ed today, Santa Barbara Unified School District President Laura Capps explains the rationale behind the closing of public schools at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic – and what else parents and kids should be doing to help stop its spread).
On the unlucky Friday, March 13th, leaders of our local education community made the decision to close dozens of schools in the 20 districts throughout Santa Barbara County, impacting the education and lives of thousands of kids, teachers and staff and their families
It was a decision for which I’d advocated – both as President of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board and as the mom of a third grader.
As a policy matter, the scientific rationale for this action may be summarized in a phrase that, swiftly and sadly, has become part of our vernacular, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads and worsens: “flattening the curve.”
This strategy, simple if disruptive to our day-to-day routines, is a method for slowing down the diffusion of this pandemic, an effort to prevent a sudden spike in cases that could overwhelm our local health care system. As with nearly everything in the community, children and their schools are vital to achieving our goals.
This is not to say that there were not compelling arguments for keeping the schools open: beyond necessary academic instruction, school is an invaluable part of our community life, especially for low income families who rely on the nutritious food and essential childcare that schools provide, as well as children with special needs and other vulnerabilities.
That is why I believed it was imperative to put in place a plan to provide free meals to all school kids while working with community partners on how our families can be supported in these challenging times. Starting today (Monday, March 16th) healthy meals are being distributed at ten schools throughout the district from 11:30am to 1pm. Please see here for SBUSD’s food distribution plan.
An effective firewall. By closing, our local schools join over half of all districts in California which have closed their doors to students, according to Governor Newsom; more than 80 percent of students in the state did not go to school today.
Despite the arguments for keeping schools open, closing them represents an extremely impactful step in flattening the curve, especially because children are the least vulnerable to COVID-19.
Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and a professor of pediatrics, in an insightful op-ed in the New York Times, shed light on his studies of past pandemics, including the 1918 Spanish Flu and the more recent H1N1 virus.
“School closing turned out to be one of the most effective firewalls against the spread of the pandemic,” Dr. Markel wrote. He cited data showing that cities which in the past acted quickly by taking such measures, experienced lower death rates that those that didn’t.
He explained that closing schools “can be a key part of slowing the spread of easily transmissible viruses so that hospitals are not overrun with sick people, and it can help to buy time to allow for the development of antiviral medications, medical treatments or a vaccine.”
The playdate temptation. For those of us juggling jobs with school-aged children, these coming weeks may be especially trying.
Kids are restless. Many are anxious and scared, as are we. The need to restore normal routines is already more than tempting and will increase with each slowly passing day.
Now that we’ve taken this dramatic step of school closure, however, we need to adhere to the principle behind it by limiting social interactions as much as possible.
As Dr. Asaf Bitton, Executive Director of Brigham and Women's Hospital, wrote, “No playdates, parties, sleepovers, or families visiting each other's houses."
“This sounds extreme because it is,” Bitton added, “even if you choose only one friend to have over, you are creating new links and possibilities for the type of transmission that all of our school/work/public event closures are trying to prevent.”
Bottom line. The overarching goal is for us to adhere to this new norm so effectively that we can soon re-open schools and resume the way of life we took for granted just days ago.
The bottom line is that “flattening the curve” requires all of us to participate -- whether you are a courageous food worker who is doing your part by cooking meals for students, or a parent trying to keep kids confined and happy, or a teacher being creative by planning on-line instruction in this new reality.
Children are the touchstones of our community and our lives. If we do right by the kids of the community by keeping their growing bodies healthy, we do right by everyone.
Images: School's closed (foxbangor.com); Patients packed into an emergency hospital in Riley, Kansas, during the 1918 influenza epidemic (theconversation.com); How "flattening the curve" strategy slows down spread of infectious disease (Washington Post); Laura Capps and Oscar (courtesy photo).