A recent order from Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services requires remote learning to continue for public high school and college students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And while some districts offer face-to-face teaching for younger students, a number of larger districts—like in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor—have opted for virtual school at all grade levels. But now a group of physicians is urging the Ann Arbor local school board to open up in-person instruction for elementary and special education students.
Ann Arbor pediatrician Dr. Omkar Karthikeyan is one of over 100 pediatricians and other physicians who have signed a letter to the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) district Board of Education and Superintendent Jeanice Swift. Karthikeyan says that without an in-person school experience amid the pandemic, kids have been navigating a variety of health challenges, including issues in their emotional and mental well-being.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of tremendous emotional challenges that kids have been dealing with, really across the age spectrum,” he said. “Older kids are dealing with much higher rates of anxiety and depression. Younger kids are really starting to act out more and manifest some of these symptoms of anxiety that typically present as just sort of defiance and fighting with parents.”
Karthikeyan adds that physicians are concerned about children’s physical wellness, too. If kids are struggling to engage academically, that can affect their self esteem, which can in turn affect their physical health, he says, adding that obesity rates are increasing as kids become more sedentary.
“We also know that these lockdowns have led to rising rates of child abuse,” he says. “School is a refuge for a lot of these kids. It gives them an opportunity to connect with other people who might be their outlet from some of these more abusive situations.”
Karthikeyan says that while children can contract COVID-19 and become seriously ill, studies show they’re less likely to contract and spread it than adults are.
“There’s a lot of data from all over the world, particularly in places where they have had in-person school overseas, and they’ve shown that there’s very little risk of transmission within the classroom setting, and there’s not a lot of transmission from children to teachers when basic precautions like masking, social distancing, good hand hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces are put in place and adhered to,” he said.
AAPS superintendent on balancing public safety and the needs of students
AAPS superintendent Swift says there’s no doubt that face-to-face instruction works better for kids, and one in four children in the AAPS district comes from a home affected by poverty. And while AAPS will prioritize bringing its most vulnerable students back to classrooms once it’s safe and possible to do so, she says, the current surge of COVID cases means staffing schools is a challenge.
“The shift and the increase in the level of community spread makes it such that that combination of individuals who are personally impacted by a positive test and those who are impacted by a quarantine requirement—the combination of those two makes it impossible to properly and responsibly staff our classrooms and schools,” Swift said.
But she says the district is very concerned about AAPS students who are struggling with the difficulties that virtual learning poses, and that educators are still reaching out to some pupils in person.
“This is what keeps our team up at night, and it’s what drives our work every day, is ensuring that whether we’re in a virtual classroom or whether we’re in a face-to-face, in-person, in-school classroom that we are keeping our physical, mental health, social-emotional, all of those needs of our students … in the front of our mind,” Swift said.
Karthikeyan says there’s an expectation that communities will do their part in order to help kids learn the importance of keeping others safe through COVID-19 safety precautions like wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines.
“Early on in the pandemic there was some question of whether young children would be able to comply with some of those basic things, but we found that they have no problem doing that when the community and parents emphasize those behaviors at home and we model it in our daily lives,” he said.
Conversations about how best to limit the spread of COVID-19, including in schools, have been continuing for months, with no easy answers. Back in March, University of Michigan medical historian Dr. Howard Markel told Stateside that social distancing is the “nuclear option” of public health tools.
“We tend to unroll these social distancing strategies when the threat of real danger and death is greater than the risk of social disruption. Because it’s not just kids staying at home, it’s parents staying at home with their children. Not everyone has a job where they can just take time off,” Markel said.
As of December 7, the state reported 34 new outbreaks associated with Michigan K-12 public schools. That weekly total of outbreaks in schools and higher education institutions has decreased during the state’s three-week pause on in-person learning—which has now been extended—for high school and college students.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.