As an experienced physician of more than 30 years and currently a member of Congress, I am positioned uniquely to evaluate public health risks in making practical decisions on how we can safely move society forward during this pandemic.
Ultimately we must balance perceived public health risks and the risks of shuttering our existence. We must look past the politics, now so deeply ingrained in this discussion, to make rational and factually based decisions, putting emotional arguments in their proper perspective, on how best to move our lives forward.
In my view the science and the data, with examining all the risks and benefits of action and non-action, point toward reopening most schools in America.
For starters, the data suggests children are less susceptible to becoming infected with COVID-19. One recent study out of Korea, suggests those under 10 are especially low risk of infection and transmission.
In addition, the research is clear that COVID-19 has had a disastrous effect on education in America. Great numbers of rural schools and those affecting minority students, have closed because they cannot offer remote learning – leaving these already marginalized students at even higher risk for getting further behind.
According to a June 2019 Pew Research Center Study, only 56 percent of households with less than $30,000 of annual income have broadband internet access in their home. Research suggests some students could lose as much as a year’s worth of educational gains by September due to remote learning. So the effect of further delaying in school education to our students will lead to disastrous future consequences.
One of the great blemishes of our American society is the all-encompassing specter of litigation. Subsequently if schools are going to welcome their students back, then it is imperative that Congress ensures school officials that they will be held harmless in their efforts.
That is why I introduced the Open Schools Responsibly Act. If passed, this legislation would provide liability protection to schools that are in compliance with guidelines issued by their state and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as they welcome students back.
If Congress does not protect schools, then two possible outcomes may occur – neither of which would be good for the schools or our youth. In one scenario, schools may decide to assume the risk of opening their doors, and although they may have made every effort to stop the spread, they could become financially devastated by a massive lawsuit – ultimately forcing the local taxpayer to foot the bill for legal expenses in the case of public schools or devastating a private institution forcing bankruptcy. In the other scenario, schools may simply keep their doors shuttered, thus depriving students of their future.
Make no mistake, the Open Schools Responsibly Act would not shield schools from lawsuits if they act irresponsibly during the pandemic. The bill would not protect schools in cases of gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or flagrant indifference. If school officials don’t take the proper precautions to protect children, then they should be held accountable.
Students and teachers need to wear masks. Desks must be staggered. Hallways and bathrooms should be used in a limited capacity to mitigate transmission rates.
From the early days of the virus’s arrival in the United States, I warned people that, in my professional opinion as a physician, we should take this contagion very seriously and yet many dismissed my notions. I continue to believe this and plead with people to live and act responsibly.
COVID-19 is here to stay until we have a vaccine and even then, I suspect we will still have challenges. But if we don’t want the next generation of Americans to have a significant setback in their education, then we can no longer afford to hide behind our computer screens. With the proper precautions, schools, like so many businesses across the U.S., can be made safe for faculty, staff and our students.
Kids must be afforded the opportunity to get the most effective learning available — in person learning. Thus in doing so, when school administrators act in good faith to protect their charges, they should be shielded from frivolous lawsuits. The future of our nation hangs in the balance – the balance between learning to live with and stop running from this virus. This is why it is so critical to pass liability protection for schools so that we may balance the scales and help this nation move forward.
Congressman Greg Murphy, M.D. (NC-03) has been a practicing Urological Surgeon for more than 30 years and serves on the House Committee on Education and Labor. Before running for Congress, he served as an Adjunct Professor of Surgery at the East Carolina University School of Medicine and also as a member of the Davidson College Board of Trustees.