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As Colorado leaders enact a patchwork set of COVID-19 regulations, one thing has become abundantly clear. We are prioritizing our adult playgrounds — bars, gyms, and restaurants — over the urgent need to ensure that schools remain open.

Our actions prove where our real priorities lie.

When we choose short-term comforts over education, we fail to invest in our future.

As the leader of an organization that prioritizes evidence-driven health policy, it may seem counterintuitive that I would speak out on the importance of in-person learning. But as an organization and as a community, we are increasingly learning that social factors — including education — have a far greater impact on health than one might expect.

This realization prompted me to become more engaged in our state’s education community, and I chair the board of Adams State University in Alamosa, which shifted to online-only classes last week. When we invest in our education, we invest in our health.

Right now, town by town, schools are closing. They closed two weeks ago in the Sheridan and Cherry Creek school districts, and last week in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. By the time Thanksgiving break is over, school will be online for most students in Jefferson, Douglas, and Adams counties, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Greeley, and other places.

I am often in meetings — Zoom meetings, of course — where we discuss the reluctance of our leadership at the local, state, and national level to “close down the economy.” A move to a stay-at-home order is politically untenable because the perceived costs to our economic recovery are just too great.

While I appreciate the sentiment, we need to think again.

Closing our schools for in-person learning — or not opening them in the first place — comes at an enormous cost, especially for younger children. The argument I hear most often is that we need kids at school so that their parents are free to work. We need schools as child care providers. And as true as this may be, this argument only skims the surface of the true costs of keeping kids home, even with remote learning.

  • Our children are falling behind in skill development, and students of color are disproportionately impacted. McKinsey, which has researched the consequences of lower-quality education for Black and Hispanic students, projects that all students will fall behind if school is online through 2020. Black and Hispanic students will be hurt the most.
  • Some kids — and by some I mean too many — have not even shown up this year. Average daily attendance over the first two weeks of school this fall was about 88%. While that’s higher than during springtime remote learning, it’s about 5 percentage points lower than the same period in 2019, when attendance in classrooms was 93%, according to Chalkbeat Colorado. If we think that the summer gap and other manifestations of inequities in our education system were pronounced before this pandemic, imagine what they will be like after it.
  • Children aren’t just missing out on developing the hard skills of reading, writing, math, and science. School is critical to social-emotional development. Elementary school students develop in ways that are best nurtured in social environments: Building friendships, becoming resilient, learning empathy, and cooperating with others are just some of the softer skills our kids need to learn.
  • The social engagement and support found in schools are also critical to children’s emotional well-being. In fact, student well-being already appears to have dropped significantly from the spring, with the percentage of Denver students saying they are good or great psychologically dropping from 66% in the spring to 54% in the fall, according to a district survey.

As we respond to the pandemic, we must remember the importance of collaboration, compromise, civics, and civil discourse. I hear dismay about how divided we are as a country. If we want to create something other than vitriol and divisiveness, there’s no better place to start than by valuing our education system.

Colorado, it’s not too late to make safely reopening schools our top priority. Schools can and should still be responsive to the evolving context of the pandemic. As the holidays approach and COVID-19 cases spike, policymakers and health organizations are suggesting that older students, especially, should continue to learn at home for the immediate future.

But our actions can support the primacy of education and help clear the way for a faster, healthier return to school. Mask up, keep your distance, wash your hands, stay at home. Abide and respect public health orders. And keep your holiday celebrations small.

I encourage our local, state and national leaders to make the calls that brave, ethical leadership demands. Make the tough calls on public health orders. Support the governor’s call to pass an economic relief package in the upcoming special legislative session so that businesses can remain closed and schools can open. Call on our congressional delegation to do the same at the federal level. Support efforts to scale testing as quickly as possible.

And support educators and education leaders with the resources and guidance they need as they navigate the complicated logistics of keeping schools running during the pandemic. The safety and education of our young people depend on their ability to do their jobs well.

The Colorado Health Institute has written about these calls to leadership in a new report released in partnership with The Denver Foundation, A New Better. When we cannot have it all, when we cannot fully reopen, the choices that we make about what to prioritize speak volumes about who we are.

There’s little doubt that stay-at-home orders are economically damaging in the short term. Taking a year of two off from educating our children in person? That’s damaging for generations to come.

Michele Lueck is president of the Colorado Health Institute and chair of the Adams State University Board of Trustees.

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