In the City of Austin, families were originally told that schools would be closed on March 13th. Then they were told that school would be cancelled until April 3rd. Then April 13th. And on Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott ordered that all schools in the state shall remain closed until May 4th. And the date will get pushed back again, soon enough. 

For the sake of the students, their families, and the well-being of wider society, we must immediately cancel school for the rest of the academic year.

Students are not a monolith, and while some are thrilled to be out of school, others are worried about keeping up with online instruction in anticipation of returning to school later this spring only being tested. They may also be mourning the absence of their friends, trying to cope with anxiety and depression, or they could be overcome with fear for themselves or their loved ones. We cannot make the world right for them by telling them everything will be okay, but we can take away the stress of academics at a time when their inner world needs support. Instead of applying external pressure on young people, let’s allow them to engage in free play, pursue their own interests, and learn to sit with themselves and their emotions.  

The uncertainty around when students will be able to return to school is only adding to the stress that families are dealing with as they manage job or business losses, mounting debts, evaporating retirement savings, and fears that their loved ones may become afflicted with COVID-19. We need guardians to be able to focus on taking care of their children while keeping their families afloat. Being able to definitively state that schools will not reopen this year will bring some much needed certainty in their lives. Further, removing the pressure on families to make sure their children are keeping up with schoolwork will do wonders for reducing family conflict. 

If the arguments for canceling the school year for the benefit of students and their families are not compelling enough, the public health argument is overwhelming. COVID-19 has the potential to be more devastating than any pandemic our nation has faced since the Spanish Flu, of which only a tiny subset (two one-hundredths of a percent) of our current population has lived through. This lack of lived experience in our society helps explain much of the lack of urgency to take the necessary measures required to stop the spread of the disease before it overwhelms medical capacity, leaving people with the disease unable to receive needed treatment, thereby greatly and unnecessarily increasing the fatality rate. 

A recent analysis by The University of Texas at Austin professor Dr. Lauren Ancel Myers highlights what those necessary measures are. In Central Texas, we must keep schools closed while also reducing daily contacts (personal and business) within the community by 90% in order to avoid overwhelming local hospital capacities by the summer. This analysis supports the CDC’s considerations for school closures, which suggests 20-week school closures may be appropriate in the face of substantial community spread of COVID-19.

Additionally, closing schools for the remainder of the academic year would send a clear message that public officials and educators are taking this pandemic seriously, and that the public should, as well. Ever-changing dates for potential school reopenings suggests that the threat of COVID-19 may pass in just a few weeks, and that is not a compelling call for people to radically alter their personal behavior by engaging in vigilant social distancing.  

It becomes more and more evident each day that we should not rely on public officials at the federal or state level to do what is necessary to protect our neighbors. We must act locally, and we must act now. It is time to pull the plug on the school year. 

image: Felipe Esquivel ReedCoronavirus COVID-19 virusCC BY-SA 4.0