Column: It is vital to get kids safely back to school

For the Valley News
Published: 6/25/2020 10:10:16 PM
Modified: 6/25/2020 10:10:10 PM

As a pediatrician and mother of four young children, I have devoted significant time and energy to considering how and when to safely reopen schools in the Upper Valley. I would never begin to claim that I have all the answers, but it has become abundantly clear to me that remote learning was not working for most children and planning for a safe reopening of schools this fall is an urgent matter.

My husband and I are fortunate because we still have our jobs and excellent child care. But with an active toddler, an endlessly inquisitive preschooler and two elementary school students who require close supervision, it has been exhausting. I worry about our own children’s education and social development, and my mind is constantly distracted by worry for the well-being of the most vulnerable children, those for whom school is an essential resource. Many of the children and families I care for are suffering. I see the educational divide widening by the day.

The educational deficits resulting from school closings are easy to predict, but the more worrisome adverse outcomes I have witnessed involve the mental and physical health declines. So many families have struggled with impossible choices. Parents’ work productivity competes with appropriate child care and screen time. Social isolation to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus prohibits the socialization that children require for their development. Families are used to depending on their children’s school to provide stability and safety during periods of stress, and now they have no safety net.

New Hampshire’s Department of Education convened the School Transition Reopening and Redesign Task Force to help prepare for the uncharted waters that lie ahead this fall. Its recommendations are due at the end of this month. Vermont has announced that its schools will reopen in the fall, and the Agency of Education and Department of Health hav issued guidelines on hygiene, social distancing and containment strategies. While many questions and concerns remain, these are excellent first steps, and the involvement of local and regional health experts is essential in ensuring this process is evidence-based, rather than fear-based.

Many studies have confirmed that not only do most children fare well if infected with this virus, they also do not seem to be responsible for its spread. School closings were based on the assumption that children would be “super spreaders” of the virus, but the data thus far do not support this. While valid fears and concerns must be addressed, the goal should be for as many children and educators as possible to safely return to school in the fall.

Making families and school employees feel secure will require creative thinking and innovation, but I have confidence that our local schools can meet this challenge — using the ample open spaces of our rural communities to ensure social distancing, for example, and establishing age-appropriate protocols for hand hygiene and mask wearing. Children are resilient and will adapt to new routines. We can’t allow these challenges to act as barriers to what is best for children.

The value of in-person education should not be underestimated. Beyond learning their letters and numbers, younger children are learning self-care and how to be a friend. In addition to learning American history and geometry, older children are learning to manage their own schedules and choose the right friend group.

A generation of children who do not get these experiences for a prolonged period is unprecedented and we must do whatever we can to avoid this. Our students are depending on us.

Tricia Groff, of Hanover, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a general pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

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