Edward B. Clark: Utah should keep its schools open this summer

Being away from school not only affects learning, but health and well-being.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Highland Park Elementary PTA hosts a "teacher parade," on Friday, May 1, 2020, in Salt Lake City as teachers and staff drive along most of the school boundary streets to celebrate teachers and students during the coronavirus pandemic which closed down schools.

As the initial effects of the pandemic begin to ease, one of the best things we can do for our children is keep them in school for the summer.

This past year, the benefits of classroom learning have become clearer than ever before. School kids have fallen behind academically, lost essential social interaction and suffered emotional stress. It’s important we open schools as soon as facilities are safe and well-ventilated. But let’s not close them at the end of the school year. Not when we have a unique opportunity to make up valuable lost time.

The school shutdowns left kids isolated, out of classrooms and off playgrounds. Those with a home computer took classes remotely. Good luck finding parents who will tell you their kids absorbed and retained as much content learning as they would have from a teacher standing in front of them, surrounded by classmates.

Interruption of the classroom environment has extended far beyond reading, writing, math and science. Interaction with peers is an essential lifetime skill to develop while growing up. Kids need the wide variety of peers which schools provide and with whom they learn to communicate, respect, disagree and share common ground.

Supportive parents are critical, of course, but so are other adult role models. Each of us remembers a teacher who helped make us who we are today. Interaction beyond a child’s immediate comfort zone is at the heart of a well-rounded education.

Our schools also provide routine health checks for many students. School nurses, counselors, administrators and teachers can make note of poor nutrition, even outright hunger, as well as evidence of emotional stress, anxiety and potential abuse.

Kids worry about family health and economic circumstances. Because of the pandemic, students are more vulnerable to depression, ADHD, and autism, which can be under-recognized and often undiagnosed. Don’t forget school activities also contribute to student health through exercise and outdoor time — P.E. classes, recess or even walking to and from home.

Schools are clearly a safety net on health matters. But, as a physician, I should point out that the interruption of routine health and dental care during the pandemic is significant. Severe childhood conditions such as obesity, asthma, diabetes, tooth decay and cancer benefit from early diagnosis. Standard immunizations required by schools may not have been delivered for a year. As a result herd immunity for measles, mumps and chicken pox has been weakened.

As we emerge from the devastating immediate effects of COVID-19, we must continue to focus on the medium and longer-term consequences. As a pediatrician, I am particularly concerned with the education and health consequences for children. They are one third of our population, not just our responsibility but our future. In ordinary times, our kids have benefited from summer vacation. Right now, they will benefit far more by staying in the classroom.

Edward B. Clark, M.D. | University of Utah

Edward B. Clark, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics at University of Utah School of Medicine and recently retired as vice president of clinical affairs at University of Utah Health.