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When Done Right, the Benefit of Reopening Schools Outweighs the Risk

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

This coming fall, my wife and I find ourselves stumped like so many other parents out there: what do we do with our three boys if the schools aren’t open?

Through our own hard work, we’ve been blessed to be able to afford childcare and distance learning measures that go above and beyond what the public system can offer. But what about so many parents out there – single parents going it alone, moms and dads out of work trying to make ends meet? With unemployment soaring, who is standing up for them and their precious children who deserve an education? 

Science and medicine are on their side. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that we should start with – not merely consider –the goal of having students physically present in the classroom this upcoming school year. Any parent, myself included, can readily tell you that trying to keep squirming children active and engaged in front of a Zoom screen is not possible. Not only is keeping kids home ineffective, as a health professional and former public health official, I know that it’s also dangerous. Prolonged absence from schools means that terrible ills such as abuse, learning disabilities, mental health issues, and food insecurity slip through the cracks without the watchful eye of caring teachers. Moreover, these tragedies disproportionately affect minority and disadvantaged students.

While the science may tell us that kids belong in school, special interest groups and out-of-touch politicians tell us they know better. Whether it’s arrogance or ignorance, these elites are on the precipice of making sweeping decisions that could set children back for years. 

So, what should be done? It starts with being honest: there is simply no way to eliminate the risk of the virus entirely before the school year starts. Rather, we must work to mitigate it and tip the scale in favor of education over the quantified and mitigated risk. 

It’s already happening. This summer, private day cares and camps reopened by adapting to a new process – social distancing, masks, screening questions and daily temperature checks to name a few. To date, there is no data to support that the virus has spread in my home state of New Jersey due to their reopening or that children have been disproportionately affected. For our public schools, the conversation should not be whether schools reopen; it should be how to reopen them safely through risk mitigation efforts. We must start to accept this and plan for process changes now. It’s a small price to pay for the invaluable benefit school provides to both parents and our children. 

Americans are understandably scared in the wake of the great human and economic toll that COVID-19 has taken on our country. From my experience as a former public health official, I have the humility to admit that mere discussion of supportive facts and figures may not be enough to assuage those who have seen their lives ravaged by this terrible disease. On the other hand, I can also see how political leaders make the mistake of communicating almost exclusively through emotion to a weary public that is desperate for some certainty. As Americans we must pivot, not freeze. We must implement stopgap process changes with the same ingenuity that has fueled the miracle of the American Dream for over 200 years. This is a basic risk-reward calculation, and for our kids and parents, we owe it to us all to make the brave and science-supported choice to send our kids back to school this fall. 

Dr. Rik Mehta is a biotech entrepreneur, innovator, healthcare policy expert and a licensed pharmacist and attorney. 

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