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Editorial: Dr. Anthony Fauci sends a message to Wisconsin schools
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Editorial: Dr. Anthony Fauci sends a message to Wisconsin schools

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The nation’s top infectious disease expert just urged schools to reopen.

We hope school officials in Madison and across Wisconsin were listening — those who have kept most of their students at home for online learning during the pandemic.

School officials should be ready to open for the second semester in late January, at least for elementary school students. Districts also should share their plans with the public. School officials always can push back their opening dates based on what’s happening in their communities. Not every school and situation is the same.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC’s “This Week” November 29 that in-person classes should be “the default position.”

The spread of COVID-19 “among children and from children is not really very big at all, not like one would have suspected,” Fauci said. “So let’s try to get the kids back.”

Amen.

The potentially deadly virus is more than a public health threat. It’s a detriment to learning, especially for children whose parents don’t have flexibility with their jobs or the latest technology in their homes to help students with their studies.

Online classes are hurting math scores and widening achievement gaps along racial and economic lines, a nonprofit research group reported last week. The NWEA’s analysis of data from more than 4 million third- through eighth-graders across the country showed student progress is slipping. The researchers also worried their study underestimates the impact on minority and poor students, who have been disproportionately stuck at home for school.

While gathering students in classrooms presents some risk for infection, leaving them at home contributes to social isolation, abuse, depression and hunger, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s especially true for younger students. Schools can help keep students safe from the virus by isolating them in small groups, separating desks with plexiglass and, for middle and high school students, requiring masks. Parents should still be given an online option.

New York City’s progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course last week by embracing in-person classes — despite a higher percentage of New York City residents testing positive for COVID. The nation’s largest school district planned to reopen school buildings to many of its youngest students Monday.

“We feel confident that we can keep schools safe,” de Blasio told The Associated Press.

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Assembly want to require schools here to open by late January. We share the Legislature’s urgency. But those decisions should be left to local officials.

State leaders can help ease health concerns among teachers and other school staff by prioritizing them for vaccines, ahead of the general public. Vaccines should start arriving for health professionals and the elderly later this month and expand from there.

Europe has learned that schools are not major sources of transmission of COVID-19, and children there have benefited from in-person instruction. America needs to learn that lesson, too.

That doesn’t mean the virus should be taken lightly. A Madison student at East High School, which has relied on remote learning, died last month after an apparent “COVID-related illness,” according to the district. Cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin remain high, though they have been falling for the last two weeks.

Schools should prioritize what’s best for children — not what’s best for teachers unions or business interests. And according to Fauci and other health experts, that means opening schools for in-person classes sooner than later.

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