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Opinion: Overprotecting kids from COVID-19 in school exposes them to other dangers

Cynthia M. Allen

Barely three weeks into the school year, I learned that three of my friends had their kids home again — in quarantine.

Oh no, I thought. They all got the coronavirus in school. Turns out none of their kids, all fourth graders, were sick, but they had all been "exposed" to a classmate who had tested positive.

For two weeks (the required isolation period) they struggled through long days of online classes — a huge blow for kids who had just gotten back into the rhythm of in-person schooling and were enjoying human interaction beyond their households. All of them were thriving in a "normal" academic setting.

Ottawa County officials shuttered Libertas Christian School in Hudsonville Thursday, Oct. 23, 2020, "due to COVID-19." The school sued the county and state Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, over threats to close the school over mask usage.

It set them back in their studies, which was no surprise given what we know about the challenges of online learning. And it was all for naught, since as I mentioned, none developed COVID-19. That result is consistent with the bounty of research that suggests schools (particularly those with stringent protocols) are not a significant source of community spread. This is especially true for younger students.

All three of my friends have their kids at Great Hearts Lakeside, a new classical charter school in Fort Worth, Texas, whose efforts to get kids back in the classroom safely and on time have been laudable.

Indeed, since the school year began Aug. 19 (the first few weeks being virtual), the K-5 school of more than 700 students has had only three positive coronavirus tests (including one active case) and none traced to the school. But about 10 times that number of kids ended up in quarantine.

Healthy kids are relegated to the loneliness of their homes and computer screens because dutiful schools are following state and national protocols that don't seem to be based on much of the scientific research around how this illness spread among young kids, especially when those kids are masked and "socially distanced."

The Fort Worth Independent School District endured criticism for its lack of preparedness during a series of town halls before reluctantly agreeing to reopen its schools to in-person learning. Yet the district (considering its size) has, thus far, seen similarly paltry numbers of students contracting the virus.

Spokesman Clint Bond said that the district currently has 39,353 in-person students; the other half of the district's 84,000 students are participating in online learning.

The district's COVID-19 tracker shows that since classes began in-person Oct. 5, the majority of schools have had case counts in the single digits — usually one to three students testing positive, while some campuses appear to have had no cases at all.

The largest number of cases has been at Paschal High School, with a total of 16 positives.

All told, there have been 162 positive student cases (as of this writing) on the district's 145 campuses. Twelve additional cases were reported at high schools (athletes and band members) before students returned to campus.

That's quite remarkable, in a good way. The numbers among students are small.

What isn't so great is that cases resulted in far more children missing school than were sick — since school began on Sept. 28, there have been about 800 kids "exposed or positive" most of whom have been quarantined but never ended up sick. Kids who were getting reacclimated to in-person school are suddenly and unnecessarily thrust back into an online learning environment.

That's disruptive in the best of situations, and hugely detrimental to kids in tough home environments or those already struggling in school. If there's any good news, it's that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly looking to shorten the quarantine period guidance for schoolchildren exposed to the virus so they can more quickly return to the classroom, either by allowing children who test negative within a shorter time period to go back to school, or just paring back the time of isolation altogether.

Given what the CDC director has declared about the efficacy of face coverings there is no reason that schools following mask protocols should be quarantining healthy kids anyway. But policy consistency does not seem to be the hallmark of our time, a reality that is mostly hurting our kids.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at cmallen@star-telegram.com.