Protecting Children’s Rights As Schools Close

Jacqueline Bhabha, Margaret M. Sullivan, and Mary T. Bassett

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a near universal closure of schools. By 20 March, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had documented closures in 119 countries, 107 of which were nationwide. The number of children kept from school numbers in the hundreds of millions.

At this time, at least 95,000 schools across the United States have been closed or are scheduled to close for varying lengths of time, affecting at least 42.1 million public school students.

The rationale for this strategy is straightforward: to limit transmission of the novel coronavirus among children who would then bring the infection home to their families, teachers, and communities. As the global number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases nears the 300,000 mark, consensus for more aggressive state action has gained support.

The reality of widespread school closures—a complex political decision that must take into account both epidemiological and economic factors—is daunting from the perspective of protecting children. Children are less likely to experience serious illness related to COVID-19, according to current scientific evidence, suggesting that school closures may not be necessary from a child health perspective. Yet, as children can be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, many jurisdictions have implemented such closures as a way to slow the spread of community transmission, alongside other measures deemed necessary. But do the social distancing benefits outweigh the risks that school closures pose to children? If they do, what measures can be put in place to protect the most vulnerable children?

Now is a good time to look at both sides of the ledger for school closure from the child’s perspective. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the United States is the sole country not to have ratified, places special obligations for protecting children on states. Universal primary education and support for family unity are examples.

Schools are not only places where children learn, they are also safe spaces. More than any other major segment of the healthy population, children are dependent on others for their protection and daily wellbeing. That is why international law requires states to have regard to “the best interests” of children in all actions concerning them.

While parents are working, schools often provide that important supervision and care, both during the school day and through pre- and post-school activities. In many cases, schools also provide food, basic health care, and a clean, safe and healthy environment. School closures are likely to place some children at heightened risk. In the United States, 44% of children under nine live in low-income families, 21% of them in poverty. In these contexts, parents are much less likely to be employed in sectors which afford a work-from-home option or a guaranteed salary in case of sickness or family emergency. Many of these parents, particularly those without extended family or alternative, affordable childcare options, will be forced into the catch-22 choice of either leaving their children unaccompanied, placing them in the care of sub-optimal caregivers (including other children), or jeopardizing access to essential work-generated income.

Schools do not only offer safety; they also offer warmth, food, and water. Shocking as it may seem, nearly one-third of households in the United States struggle to pay their energy bills. About one in five families reduce or go without other necessities, such as food or medicines, to pay their energy bills. Latino Americans and African Americans are hit hardest. Home may be cold. Schools are a place where children can stay warm. Similarly, families experience difficulty paying water bills, limiting ability to follow advice on hand washing. And millions of children get their meals at school—more than 14 million get a subsidized or free breakfast and nearly 30 million get a subsidized or free lunch. Add to these basic needs less widely available, including important health and mental health services provided by school nurses, social workers, and counselors.

For approximately 1.5 million homeless students, school closures pose additional increased risks. This population has even less access to safe spaces, regular sources of food, and predictable daily routines. Schools are fundamental places of socialization, where communication, friendships, and interactions with a diversity of individuals occurs within a stable, nurturing environment.

Particular hazards face families with precarious legal status, including those with mixed-status (families in which some members have authorized immigration status and others do not), those who are undocumented, seeking asylum, and others with a complex legal status. These parents and guardians often have limited and unstable employment options, decreasing the likelihood that they will be able to take time off from work or have the ability to afford additional childcare. Expanding immigration enforcement is also significantly increasing this community’s fears of interacting with state entities, such as health and welfare facilities, public benefit programs, emergency response systems, and community care facilities.

Increasingly, our public schools have become social protection systems for children living in poverty, and a way to reach children who need a range of supportive interventions.

When schools are closed, children lose a safe place. Expanding access to food assistance, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), including removal of SNAP from public charge determination, is critically necessary. Families are also in need of educational and childcare resources, whether in the form of widespread access to online education, tools for home-based learning, or leveraging the time and skills of local high school and undergraduate students. As large scale school closure continues, public officials have an urgent responsibility to ensure other child protective spaces exist and are accessible to the millions of children who will depend on them for their health and well being.

Jacqueline Bhabha is a Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is the director of research at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

Margaret M. Sullivan is a postdoctoral research fellow at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health & Human Rights at Harvard University and a family nurse practitioner at a Boston community health center.

Mary T. Bassett directs the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and previously served as New York City’s Health Commissioner.