Dr. Scott Atlas, President Trump’s newest coronavirus adviser, is pressing the case for ensuring that schools are open.
“There’s nothing more important than educating our children. In fact, we are the only nation of the Western European and our peer nations … that are somehow sacrificing our children out of our own fear,” Atlas told the Washington Examiner.
Atlas is the newest addition to the White House coronavirus task force and has become a fixture at press events at Trump’s side. His hiring prompted an outcry from public health experts who feared that Atlas would replace Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert. Atlas insisted, however, that he is “helping out on the task force and [working] with all the people that are involved.”
Before and during his time in the White House, Atlas has criticized state governments for restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, which crippled the economy. He has also become a staunch advocate for school reopenings despite fears of coronavirus transmission among students and teachers.
“The reason we can’t lock down the schools is because it’s well known that there are severe harms to children from locking down schools,” Atlas said. “Socialization and maturation is really a critical reason why children attend school. That’s all missing if you use distance learning.”
Distance learning practices began in April, when states instituted quarantine measures that forced all teachers and students to engage remotely until further notice. The shift from in-person classrooms to lessons over Zoom forced students to give up social time with friends and forced parents to serve as classroom monitors and after-school tutors.
At their peak, school closures affected roughly 55 million students in 124,000 public and private schools, according to Education Week. Nearly every state either ordered or recommended that schools remain closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year. In total, 43 states ordered schools to close for the remainder of the academic year.
There are debates about how schools can reopen without putting students, teachers, and staff at risk. Many schools that have reopened are already facing difficulties in suppressing potential outbreaks as students test positive for the virus. More than 820 students and 42 teachers in the recently reopened Cherokee County School District in north Georgia were told to quarantine due to possible exposure to COVID-19 after just six days of being open for in-person classes.
Teachers are also worried about getting sick by holding classes in person and have been calling out sick in the hopes of avoiding infection. The J.O. Combs Unified School District in Arizona canceled all classes on Aug. 17, including virtual classes, after receiving 109 teacher and staff absences. Teachers told school Superintendent Gregory Wyman they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students.
Colleges have also reversed some reopening plans after several students were confirmed to be infected with COVID-19. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that all in-person classes would shift to remote learning starting Aug. 19 after reporting clusters of coronavirus cases in several residence halls on campus in the span of two weeks.
Locking down schools once an individual is confirmed to have the coronavirus is a “panic-driven response,” Atlas said.
“The president outlined guidelines to get children safely back to school, including making sure that the schools have the resources to protect the high-risk teachers, the high-risk students,” Atlas said. “And they have options for isolating high-risk people from the on-campus environment: Have them teach at a distance.”
Infections in schools should be expected, Atlas said, and to shut them down to avoid serious illness would be “a very misguided panic” and “not the appropriate response.”