Staying home from school is a greater risk to our tamariki than Covid-19
Izzy Horrocks / Supplied
A mother of three has thought a lot about the risk of tamariki going back to school rather than staying at home. Izzy Horrocks pleads for a return to class as soon as possible.
OPINION: I am the mother of three children. Like all parents, I care deeply about what is best for my children. So I thought a lot about the risk of tamariki going back to school, versus staying at home.
On the one hand, the obvious risk is that they catch Covid-19. However, on the other hand, I know that I cannot dream of doing such a good teaching job as real kaiako.
The economist in me wants to understand how the risks balance out. Here is what we can learn from the rest of the world.
1. Our children are much more likely to be killed in car accidents than by Covid.
2. Keeping our children out of school affects their learning, social skills and mental health.
3. The biggest costs of being absent from school are borne by our most vulnerable children.
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Millions of children have returned to school in Europe and North America as Covid rages on. There is now a lot of evidence showing that the risk of Covid is significantly lower than many other everyday risks that we have learned to live with. In the first nine months of 2021, Covid kills fewer Americans under 18 than any of the following – car accidents, flu and pneumonia, heart disease or drowning.
Every day when I buckle up my kids in the car, I’m six times more likely to die than when I send my kids to class during Covid (according to US data). As parents, we don’t want to take any risks with our tamariki. But we do it everyday – the ones we don’t think about, because we’re comfortable around them.
My five year old is missing school. He misses his friends and he misses his teachers.
And he learns less in confinement. Here is a typical home learning interaction.
Me: “I have fourteen strawberries, you have three, how many do we have in all?”
My son: “Fourteen, fifteen, seventeen”.
Me: âSixteen comes after fifteen.
My son: âWhat?
(My six month old starts to cry because my two year old put a toy on his face).
Me: “It’s enough learning for today”.
I was not surprised when I read that an in-depth study in the Netherlands showed that a school closure for eight weeks resulted in an average of eight weeks of lost learning. They found that, on average, students made no progress in math, spelling and reading during distance learning.
If the impact in terms of learning loss isn’t scary enough, the data on worsening mental health will keep you from sleeping at night.
The stress of Covid-19 is there whether the children are in school or not. However, for most children, school routines and supports improve their ability to manage their mental health. A survey by UK mental health charity YoungMinds among young people with a history of mental illness found that 83% of those polled said the pandemic had made their situation worse.
What about the impact of staying home after kindergarten for our youngest tamariki?
My two year old daughter is learning to speak. Her morning song at grade 4 was âclosed playgrounds, closed pee schoolâ. Despite the lack of R, I was glad she spoke. However, I was less happy when I read about the damage that locking does to children’s language acquisition. As the BBC describes it: âThe measures taken to fight the pandemic have deprived the youngest of the social contacts and experiences essential to enriching vocabulary. Less or no contact with grandparents, social estrangement, no dates to play, and wearing face coverings in public have left children less exposed to everyday conversations and experiences. The study found that 10,000 more British children started school this year with a language delay.
I struggle with confinement with three children even though I am fortunate to have stable housing, a stable relationship, and stable finances. Remove any of these three foundations and the cost of staying home from school is higher.
A UK study found that primary school children in the poorest 20 percent of households spent 75 minutes less per day on distance learning than children in the richest 20 percent of households.
In Aotearoa, the same challenges exist. As Aigagalefili Fepulea’i-Tapua ‘explained to the spin-off: “If knowledge is power, why does it come at a price that we cannot afford? She says many of her grade 13 classmates left school for good after the first Covid lockdown, dropping out of school to help support their families.
This is confirmed by national statistics. An ERO report on the lockdown last year found low-decile schools faring worse. Only 28 percent of teachers in schools in the bottom decile were confident that students would catch up in their learning (compared to 50 percent in schools in the top decile).
Navigating the correct Covid-19 response is a huge challenge, with many complex tradeoffs. However, we need to stop overestimating the risk of Covid for children and stop underestimating the cost of missing school. Covid poses less of a risk to children than being driven in a car. Staying home after school means a generation with poorer education and poorer mental health.
Izzy Horrocks lives with her husband and three tamariki in Auckland; she has an MBA from Oxford and has focused her career on making all of our tamariki flourish.