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A closed schoolyard is seen through its fence in Montreal, Monday, April 27, 2020.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Shutting down schools in March was part of a kitchen-sink approach taken by governments across Canada to halt the spread of COVID-19. Following several European countries, and a hunch that children might be super-spreaders of the coronavirus, kids were pulled out of the classroom and placed in bubble wrap by overprotective parents and policy makers alike.

If political leaders and public-health authorities could be forgiven for erring on the side of caution at the outbreak of the pandemic, their continued failure to articulate their full-throated support for a return to classroom learning in September is unpardonable. The scientific data is unambiguous regarding the low risk of serious coronavirus infection and transmission among elementary school-aged children. Unlike adults, seasonal influenza is far more dangerous for children than the coronavirus. Yet, we do not shut down our schools when flu season starts.

Unfortunately, in this age of hyperpolarization, the entire question of when and how to get children back to school has become just another excuse to play politics. Because U.S. President Donald Trump is for reopening all schools in September, reasonable folks everywhere must be against it. “The President and his administration are messing with the health of children,” Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN on Sunday.

Americans obviously deserve better. But even in Canada, well-intentioned policy makers have become paralyzed out of fear of being accused of putting children in harm’s way or sparking the ire of teachers’ unions that seem to have forgotten what schools are there for in the first place.

The primary obstacle to getting kids physically back to school in September appears not to be concerns about the children’s safety, but that of the teachers and support staff who, as adults, could face a higher risk of coming down with a serious coronavirus infection. Yet, the data show that adults are far less likely to contract the virus from children than another adult. Your average supermarket employee, who comes into contact with countless adult strangers on any given day, faces a far greater probability of getting COVID-19 than any classroom teacher.

“Almost six months into the pandemic, accumulating evidence and collective experience argue that children, particularly school-aged children, are far less important drivers of [COVID-19] transmission than adults,” note the authors of commentary published this week in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Therefore, serious consideration should be paid toward strategies that allow schools to remain open, even during periods of COVID-19 spread. In doing so, we could minimize the potentially profound adverse social, developmental, and health costs that our children will continue to suffer until an effective treatment or vaccine can be developed and distributed or, failing that, until we reach herd immunity.”

Teachers and students with underlying conditions that make them susceptible to a more severe case of COVID-19 need to be accommodated. But we simply can no longer let theoretical risks involved in reopening schools continue to compromise the future of an entire cohort of children for whom the negative consequences of being kept out of the classroom grow by the day. Enough hemming and hawing. How about some leadership?

Health policy, like any public policy, should not be made in a vacuum. And yet, policy making during this pandemic crisis has been too narrowly focused, as governments put aside their responsibility for their overall stewardship of society to stare down a singular enemy. Critical errors made during the early days of the pandemic – the most tragic being the failure to prevent the virus from entering long-term care homes with ironclad protocols from the get-go – cannot continue to prevent a recalibration of policies now to achieve the right balance.

We knew or should have known that the school shutdowns would exacerbate developmental disadvantages faced by children from low-income families. Remote learning, even where it has been available, has amplified the inequality of opportunity faced by students who live in crowded households with limited or no internet access beyond a single smartphone.

Even children with attentive parents devoted to keeping their kids intellectually stimulated during this period of heightened stress are not immune to the gnawing impact of the pandemic on their relationships and psychological well-being. Overprotecting children from real-world risks can be as dangerous as not protecting them at all. Let’s not forget all the introverted kids who are suffering silently as news media promulgate Armageddon-like coronavirus scenarios.

Ensuring children have access to the help and monitoring they need, in an environment where they can interact with peers experiencing similar feelings, is impossible as long as schools are closed or only partially reopened. It’s time to put aside the politics and put the kids first.

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