Each of us today experiences an unprecedented time in our nation’s history — a time that demands reflection, introspection and great caution about our next steps as a people. And, while today is just a moment in time, our actions will have consequences for future generations. In no place is that more true than in decisions around whether or not to reopen our schools. 

I am a psychiatrist, and I know the grave consequences of not sending our children to school. I know that pre-pandemic, about 10% of our nation's 74 million children lived with serious emotional disturbances, and more than half of these children get their mental health services in school. This proportion only increases for minority children with mental health needs. I know that unlike what we have seen in the vast majority of children who have contracted COVID-19, the impact of untreated mental illness can be lifelong.

I think about these children and their families every day and wonder what has happened to their treatment, how they are progressing, how they will survive with such a gap in care and services. I also think about the children who do not have these severe conditions but who rely on social interaction with their peers, who need the aid of a teacher to learn — what will their future be? As a physician, I agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics. I have not even a small doubt that children should be in school. But I’m not writing this from that perspective only.  

Parents' job is to weigh risks, benefits 

Rather, I write as a mom and because of what I know medically. As a mother, if I had a school-age child, I would be demanding answers. I hope every American parent reading this knows you can and should be demanding answers from your local officials. Parenting is about weighing risks and benefits as we make decisions for our children.  Every decision — from the type of car seat you brought your newborn baby home in to whether or not your teenage son was allowed to go to that unsupervised party — is about you as a parent weighing those risks and benefits and deciding what is best for your child.  

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This one, arguably one of the most important ones — not just where your children will be educated but whether they will be — has been taken from you. Yet it has not been taken from all. My three children, now adults, attended public schools that provided them a great foundation for their future. But, today, I can tell you with certainty that if my children were in a public school system that elected not to open, as a doctor, as a psychiatrist, as an infectious disease epidemiologist and as a mother, I would want them in school despite the risk of COVID-19.

Elementary school class on July 9, 2020, in Monterey Park, California.

As so many parents are doing today, I would remove them from the public school system and pay for them to be educated elsewhere. I would have that choice to weigh the risk of my children getting COVID-19 against my children not getting the education so critical for their growth and development, and I would choose to educate them.  

Whose making the decisions about schools: School reopening debate shows power of local school boards

The reality is that for millions of Americans, this choice does not exist. State and local officials have taken away your ability to parent your children. Why, as a mother, shouldn’t you be able to do the risk analysis you do with everything else simply because your income may be a certain level? When a school is closed, the message is that your child’s education is less important than the risk of COVID-19, that mental health services are less important than the risk of COVID-19. It tells you that the risk of your child getting poor nutrition is less important than the risk of COVID-19. It tells you that your child’s special needs provided for in school are less important than the risk of COVID-19. It tells you that your ability to go to work and feed your family is less important than the risk of COVID-19.

These officials decide all of that. I ask — who are they to make that decision for you? 

And again, we must remember the “you” here are only those who might not be able to afford to make a different decision if they wish to. Private schools in my county were ordered closed, but after 10,000 signatures of paying parents and only 48 hours, that decision was overturned.

Minority children are disproportionately underrepresented in American private schools. As we struggle with race relations in our country, why is it that local politicians who claim so vigorously to support movements like Black Lives Matter make decisions that will have a disproportionate impact on the ability of young Black and brown students to get the education they deserve?

Open schools to protect US future 

When schools are closed, we simply accept that there will be millions of children who do not get educated, but more important we also accept that there will be certain children who continue their education without interruption. A 2018 study found that 17 million students lacked high-speed internet at home, and that a third of Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native families do not have high-speed home internet. 

The divide and disparity that exists might have begun years before us, but its perpetuation and expansion will be a direct result of the actions knowingly taken today. I can only imagine the protests 20 years from now.  

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In no way do I believe that COVID-19 is a small matter. Thankfully, its effect on children has been very low. The Trump administration and I simply believe that all children have a right to an education, which means the right to attend public schools, and that all parents have the right to weigh the very real risk of harm from being out of school against the risk of potential harm from COVID-19.

The Trump administration wholeheartedly understands and appreciates the difficult choice ahead of us. All parents may not elect to make the decision I would make, but all parents should be afforded the opportunity to decide. Schools should not open without safety plans and precautions; we have tools and safety measures that can and should be put in place to protect your child from contracting the virus in school.

However, care should also be exercised to protect your child from harm due to lack of education, lack of nutrition, lack of mental health care. We cannot simply continue to ignore the casualties of all other conditions in favor of containing the virus. Our nation’s future depends on the action we take today. 

Parents, demand that we take the right actions and demand that your voice as the people truly responsible for the health, safety and future of your own children not be silenced.  

Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz is asssistant Health and Human Services secretary for mental health and substance abuse. Follow her on twitter: @DrMcCance_Katz

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reopen schools and let parents weigh risks and benefits amid COVID



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