The governor got it half right: in-person learning is a priority.
There is undoubtedly a risk to returning — especially if the number of COVID cases keeps rising as it is. But keeping kids home has other dangerous risks and those risks have to be part of these difficult decisions.
Home is not a safe place for many children. One in four adults report having been physically abused during childhood. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. An estimated twelve percent of children live with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol.
The pandemic has likely worsened these problems. In a study after Hurricane Harvey in 2019, domestic violence and child abuse increased because of factors that are also present today: reduced access to resources, job loss, strained finances, and disconnection from social supports. Alcohol sales have increased nationwide. Social isolation, addiction, and abuse compound family problems.
As children are isolated at home out of view of mandatory reporters like teachers, this abuse is going undetected. Child abuse reports have dropped statewide, and no reasonable person believes abuse has decreased. Rather, children suffering abuse at home have become invisible.
How do we weigh the harm to a child who is abused day after day without intervention? The trauma from abuse affects children’s long-term health and shortens lives — we know this from ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) research. The health risks presented by child abuse can have generational impact if child victims become perpetrators as adults.
So as we weigh the risk of COVID transmission with a return to school, we must also weigh the risk of not returning, especially to the most vulnerable in unsafe home environments.
I do worry for my husband, niece, and friends who teach. I worry for my co-workers who are stationed in schools. It’s beyond frustrating that teachers are having to reap the consequences of the bad choices other adults have made. Had we adults done the right thing — avoided gatherings and other high-risk activities and worn masks — we could have looked forward to school starting without such fear.
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That’s where Gov. Reynolds failed us. Months ago, when the science was clear — or at the very least with her announcement that kids need to be back in school — she should have issued a statewide mask mandate. Instead, she is making testing harder to come by and battling local leaders who are trying to keep people safe. Even the Iowa Department of Education “guidelines” (all of two pages) say that masks “are not recommended” despite the opposite guidance from the CDC.
So what do we do?
The solution is so obvious it shouldn’t bear repeating, but we seem to be poor learners. As CDC Director Robert Redfield said this week, “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really do think over the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control.” It’s not too late. Please put your mask on.
If you are a parent with a safe home and it works for your child to stay home, this will lower the number of kids in classrooms, which will make it safer for other kids and teachers to return. If your child is going back, start having your child wear a mask for small periods at a time and increase gradually until the start of school. Explain to them why mask wearing is so important and why they need to keep their mask on at school.
If you are a business owner, it is in your power to require masks at your business. Please do this today. We can’t count on our government to lead the way, so we need businesses to step up (and many are).
Please prioritize doing business with companies (especially local businesses!) that require masks.
And stop engaging in risky behavior that is making the virus spread. Stop gathering with friends unmasked, eating in restaurants, working out at the gym, and going to the bar. It’s beyond time to prioritize children’s needs above adults’ wants.
Schools are now stuck attending to thousands of details and making difficult decisions with no foolproof answers. We all have a role to play in giving kids and teachers the best chance of a safe start to the school year. Please wear a mask. At least that decision is simple.
Jenny Schulz is executive director of the Kids First Law Center in Cedar Rapids.