In Northern Virginia, Fairfax County recently announced that, because it is too dangerous for students to return to school, the fall 2020 semester will be online only. And yet, the county just rolled out a program to open 37 schools to elementary age children. The only catch: Parents have to pay for the privilege of sending their children to the public school they support with their tax dollars.

The Supporting Return to School Program (SRS Program) plans to provide daycare for approximately 2,000 Fairfax County children, with the possibility for expansion. While means-tested, SRS can be pricey, costing families up to $1,472 per month per child

According to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay, the main goal of program “staff” — not teachers — will be to “make sure kids are online.” Chairman McKay is forthright; the program is not intended to “duplicate any of the online learning.” In other words: No teaching allowed.

Reopening must be the goal

Fairfax County is not alone. In March, Washington, D.C., opened up day care centers for essential workers in five public school buildings at a cost to families and the city of $100 to $150 per child per day. And while schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, will not open this fall, hundreds of children will be provided paid-for child care in the same buildings that were closed because of the pandemic. The same thing is happening in school districts in California

The opening of public schools to students for day-care of course conflicts with concerns that the COVID-19 infection rate makes in-person learning impossible. One Montgomery County mom points out the hypocrisy to The Washington Post: “They are saying it’s not safe for kids to be in regular school … but the child care is safe to open in the same building.” And of course there’s the hypocrisy of the teacher’s unions — while it’s unsafe for unionized teachers to teach, it’s perfectly fine for usually non-unionized workers to provide child care.  

And there is growing evidence that in-person education is possible. According to a survey of child care centers by Brown University economist Emily Oster, as of mid-June, just over 1% of staff and 0.16% of children at nearly 1,000 day care centers were confirmed infected with the coronavirus.

It is, thus, unsurprising that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) “strongly advocates” that all policy makers “should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” 

Unlike influenza, for which children are a virtual petri dish, children under 10 are significantly less likely to become infected with COVID-19 than adults; children are less likely to be symptomatic; and there is evidence that younger children are less likely to spread COVID-19 to others (including teachers and close family members) when compared to older children and adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of mid-July, children under 18 account for less than 0.1% of COVID-19-related deaths and each of the last five flu seasons proved more fatal to children than COVID-19.Get the Opinion newsletter in your inbox.

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It is well known that school closures may result in social isolation, learning deficits, food insecurity, reduced physical activity, as well as an increased risk of abuse, neglect and mental health problems — all with a disproportionate effect on poor and minority communities.       

As school districts resort to virtual learning, they not only give up essential benefits of in-person teaching, but also contribute to a massive increase in screen time for our children. Exposing young children to too much screen time can have negative effects on memory, attention, and language skills. And yet virtual education — a full school day of online screen activity — has become a reality for many students.

Screen time a lurking danger

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology (AACAP) points out what we parents know all too well: Screens can be so engaging that children lack the discipline to limit their own use. Screen habits can “quickly dominate the lives of many youth(s),” and encouraging our children to spend hours online every day negatively impacts their attention spanvision, ability to interpret social cues, and may lead to increased access to non-educational online content. 

Further, because children developmentally lack the self-control necessary to curb screen time (query whether we adults possess the self-control needed to limit our own scrolling), they will be unable to limit their use. As our education system moves online, we are sending mixed signals to our kids, requiring them to be online for a substantial portion of the day.

California’s first lady, Jennifer Seibel Newsom, shares these concerns. She writes that, even as she worked to help children obtain tablets for online schooling, she was very aware of the effects on her own children

“As a mom, I can’t ignore the reality in my home. Distance learning for my four kids this spring opened the floodgates to media and its adverse effects.”

A silver lining of some school districts’ willingness to open up public school buildings for cash is that it will make it virtually impossible to shut down in-person private schools. The Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause forbids arbitrary classifications, and were a county to prohibit religious and private schools from operating while allowing extended-day paid child care at public school buildings, a religious or private school would have a very good case under the Constitution.

During the pandemic, our children have suffered the consequences of social isolation, missed milestone events and spent more time on screens. While protecting the health and safety of our children and our communities is paramount, the decision about whether to reopen schools is one that should be made based on the best available scientific data. The AAP is surely correct that policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 must be balanced with the known harms to children that come with closing in-person schools.

Erin Hawley is a senior legal fellow at Independent Women’s Forum, senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, and former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.