Veteran math teacher: Statistically speaking, kids would be safer in schools

Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday gave school districts the ability to start the year with all-remote learning – if they feel they cannot reopen safely.

Here’s why keeping kids at home doesn’t necessarily solve the safety issue: Statistics show it may be safer for kids to be at school than at home.

I say this not only as a teacher but as a lifelong lover of numbers.

As a 30-year veteran of the Newark Public Schools, where I currently serve as a math coach in a pre-K through 8th grade school, I’m well aware of the Mark Twain quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

So, with that caveat, I offer this:

According to the CDC, typically every year 16,000 kids aged 5-19 die in the United States. This number likely will be higher if schools stay with remote learning than if they open. Why is this so? Because more children will die with remote learning since hundreds of thousands of kids will be left home alone while their parents head to work.

Consider:

  • Children will be more likely to find firearms in the home and accidentally shoot themselves (30 kids aged 5-14 died this way in 2017).
  • Children left unattended will have a higher propensity to fall out of apartment windows (amazing coincidence, this number also was 30 in 2017).
  • Children will get depressed from their social isolation and take a bottle of pills (39 kids) or intentionally shoot themselves (186). They also may unintentionally strangle themselves on a cord (71) or intentionally hang themselves (284).

Now consider the long-term impact. More children now will sit around the house and eat junk food and not exercise – adding to the outrageous juvenile obesity rate in this country. This will lead to diabetes, which eventually will kill them.

Oh, and they also will not learn very much.

As Murphy frequently says, we need to follow the data.

As of Aug. 1, according to the CDC, there have been 20 deaths among kids aged 5-14 attributed to COVID-19. During the same time period, 86 kids in that same age bracket have died from pneumonia and 50 have died from the flu.

Was anyone nervous about sending their kids to school because 136 children died from those infectious diseases? No. Should they have been? No. As tragic as those 136 deaths were to the impacted families, they do not statistically merit the drastic act of shutting down schools.

Neither do 20 deaths from COVID-19.

Every choice we make in life involves some amount of risk. We know 40,000 people die every year in the United States in car accidents, but we don’t tell everyone to stay in their homes until there are no more car accidents. We mitigate the risks by imposing and enforcing speed limits. We have lanes in highways and traffic lights in towns. We raise awareness about the importance of wearing seat belts. We make it uncool to drink and drive.

Do people still make irresponsible choices and tragically kill others as well as themselves because of their stupidity and selfishness? Yes, they do.

Some of you will argue car accidents aren’t a contagious disease. Kids in schools will be vectors that help spread the coronavirus to at-risk family members. If there are loved ones with high comorbidities at home, kids returning each day from school should physically distance from those family members. Denying the 1.4 million school children of New Jersey in-school learning because a fraction of them live with grandparents or ill relatives defies a rational analysis of risk.

An otherwise healthy teacher aged 25-54 who is not obese or diabetic has a greater likelihood of dying in a road traffic accident (18,008 auto deaths in 2017) than perishing due to the pandemic (7,548 deaths from Feb. 1 to Aug. 1 of 2020). This is statistically verifiable as long as we all wear masks, practice physical distancing, wash our hands more frequently and proceed with good care and wise caution.

It’s worth repeating: bringing kids back to schools with appropriate safety protocols in September will result in fewer children dying in the coming months, not more. Equally importantly, the in-person education they receive will far better prepare them for the post-coronavirus world that awaits them.

As a liberal Democrat who will vote for Joe Biden on Nov. 3, it pains me to say it, but on this issue, President Donald Trump is correct. Whether he knows why he is correct or not, Trump is sending a message on school re-opening the nation and our state would be wise to heed.

Scott Wild has worked in the Newark Public Schools for 30 years as a principal, vice principal, teacher-coach, math coordinator, math teacher, chess coach, basketball coach and community coach. He currently serves as the math coach at Camden Street School, a pre-K-8th grade school in the Central Ward of Newark.