Opinion: Whitmer should let Michigan's students return to school this fall

Chad Savage

After releasing a plan to reopen Michigan schools, recent comments from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suggest closures could be prolonged — citing an uptick in COVID-19 cases as the reason why. Being cognizant of the risks associated with resuming in-person instruction and implementing protocols to address them is welcomed, but barring students from the classroom could damage an entire generation.

The situation in Michigan isn’t as bad as some portray it to be. Confirmed COVID-19 cases are undoubtedly on the rise in the state, but it’s no reason to panic; in fact, it’s expected as Michigan residents re-engage with society.

The goal of "flattening the curve" was never to eliminate the virus. The strategy was intended to avoid overloading the hospital system; and it worked. Under normal circumstances, average hospital occupancy rates hover between 60 and 70%. According to the latest data, the vast majority of medical facilities in Michigan have occupancy rates at or well under those levels. Even more encouraging, a majority of hospital ICU units are treating zero COVID-19 patients.

Keeping schools closed will actually pose more harm to children, Savage writes.

Regardless of these indicators, school-age children are simply not as susceptible to the virus. The overall daily fatality count in the state has dropped by 97% since late April and most of the lingering deaths are older residents — a population that is not impacted by schools reopening. As of July 14, the fatality rate for people under the age of 20 who contracted the virus was one-fifth of 1% — more than 100 times smaller compared to residents over the age of 60. 

Moreover, when classroom instruction does resume, a study out of France finds school children don’t appear to spread the virus as easily to teachers or their peers. The premise is supported by the Dutch government — which has concluded children play a minor role in the transmission of COVID-19. Yet another report from Germany finds the virus doesn’t spread in schools; commenting on the findings, the author noted “children act more as a brake on infection [because] not every infection that reaches them is passed on.”

Not only will reopening schools pose little additional risk, but keeping them closed will actually pose more harm to children.

According to The Washington Post, child abuse is more difficult to spot when school is not in session and cases that are reported are often more severe. Other benefits typically provided by schools — including counseling and developmental services — are also being forgone.

In general, virtual learning amid the pandemic has fallen short — especially for low-income children who don’t have access to the technology that makes it possible. A survey from ParentsTogether notes nearly 40% of low-income students are doing little to no remote learning. 

Adopting protocols to limit direct contact between children, as well as staff, can help ease the anxiety some parents and local leaders have of reopening schools, no matter where the school is located. Adjusting the layout of classrooms, staggering recess and lunch periods, and avoiding contact with frequently touched surfaces are all common-sense precautions.

The CDC specifically recommends that children and staff avoid water fountains, and with thousands of communities across the country experiencing lead levels in water double that of Flint in recent years, it’s reasonable to supply students with purified bottled water.

Whitmer is right to take COVID-19 seriously, but current conditions don’t warrant a continued lockdown that includes keeping children cooped up at home. The unintended consequences of keeping schools closed will likely outweigh the threat of the virus itself. 

Dr. Chad Savage is the founder of YourChoice Direct Care in Brighton.