Lately, it feels like everyone either has COVID-19 or knows someone who does.

The number of new cases in Philadelphia is reaching record highs. The day after Christmas, more than 45% of COVID-19 tests in Philadelphia were positive.

As kids headed back to school after winter break, the rising case counts were cause for concern among many parents. But for kids, the benefits of in-person school often outweigh the risks of getting COVID-19.

These competing interests have led to debates over what’s best for kids right now — even within households. A local mother and her daughter weigh in on the question that’s on many people’s minds: Should kids be in school right now?

No: During the current surge, the risks of in-person learning are too high.

By Marion Leary

Like many parents across the country, whether to send our kid back to in-person schooling after the winter break was a hotly debated topic. As you will read from my daughter’s “Pro” op-ed, she strongly argued that she wanted to go back to her sophomore year in person for her mental health and to socialize with her peers, regardless of what she considered a low risk of contracting COVID-19, especially since our family is vaccinated and boosted.

I, however, feel differently. In my view, the individual and societal risks are too high to send students back to in-person learning while we are in this new surge of COVID-19 cases — one that continues to break records around the country.

The Philadelphia School District’s position is that it’s crucial for students to learn in person, and I don’t disagree. Still, their strategy to keep students in the classroom comes with what seems like no coordinated plan, one that does little to dampen the concerns of teachers, staff, students, and families. Furthermore, they fail to realize that this new wave of cases, a lag from the holiday season, is only being exacerbated by in-person schooling and will further disrupt the in-person education everyone so desperately wants and our kids so desperately need.

The reality is that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that is only being made worse by the continual conviction that children are immune to serious and long-term effects of COVID-19, and the erroneous belief that students go to school in isolation. Teachers, staff, and administrators are also in the school buildings and at risk of contracting COVID-19, getting sick, and bringing it home to their families. Moreover, with the upsurge in teachers testing positive, what type of learning environment are we fighting to send our kids back to? Schools across the country are struggling with increased absentee rates amongst teachers and support staff, with some schools now asking parents to step in and fill the void.

» READ MORE: As some Philly kids return to buildings, schools cope with staff and student absences due to COVID-19

It’s important to remember that some children can become quite ill from COVID-19. Though they are maybe not the majority, we still have an obligation to protect all children. Additionally, there is so much we still don’t know about this virus. A new study out last week found that children with COVID-19 may have an increased risk of developing Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.

“There is no denying that in-person learning is paramount for kids academically and socially, but it is our responsibility as parents and educators to make the hard choices.”

Marion Leary

There is no denying that in-person learning is paramount for kids academically and socially, but it is our responsibility as parents and educators to make the hard choices. That hard choice right now is to move all schools to virtual learning — just for a few weeks. Then we can use virtual learning only as needed, so that, using 2020 language, we can “flatten the curve.”

More than that, though, it’s imperative that School District leaders and city officials put together a fact-based, coordinated approach to moving education online whenever a new surge of COVID-19 cases occurs — and that needs to happen now. The piecemeal approach by the Philadelphia School District of closing some schools and not others, the night before each new school day, is reactionary and will do nothing to keep students and teachers safe, nor will it ease the burden and anxiety of everyone involved.

Marion Leary is a nurse, public health practitioner, and activist.

Yes: The benefits of in-person school are worth the risks.

By Harper Leary

As a high school student in the Philadelphia School District who had her entire freshman year take place through a screen, I’m tired of online school.

The stress of COVID-19 hits teens hard, more than even our parents may realize. We can’t get away from it; it dominates in the news and on social media, it affects family life, and it’s what we talk about in and out of school. Teens’ mental health wasn’t great before the pandemic. According to the CDC, at least one out of three high schoolers experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” in 2019. COVID-19 only made things worse.

School is sometimes the only social outlet teenagers have, and when that is taken away, life can become much more challenging. How can you expect anything different when students are lying in bed and stuck staring at a screen rather than having crucial social interaction?

» READ MORE: Children’s mental health is a pandemic crisis that needs immediate solutions, CHOP’s psychiatry chief says

COVID-19 safety is still a prominent conversation in my household, and even more so recently with the rising number of cases after winter break. I advocated to my parents that I needed to go back to school, especially after being denied its proper form for over a year. I understand that in-person school has its risks (although fewer because we are vaccinated), but I also know all too well how easy it is for months to slip away when Zoom school is your routine. Millions of students across the country are missing out on monumental years of their lives, and the friendships and opportunities that come with them.

Additionally, many students I know consider online school more mentally and academically exhausting and challenging than in-person school; students can’t ask questions easily, there aren’t as many one-on-one check-ins, and it is easy to become unmotivated. When we talk about transitioning to remote learning, it’s important to consider that students’ grades could drop. Learning through a screen is simply not ideal.

The suggestion that students can seamlessly move back and forth between in-person and online school also ignores issues of race and socioeconomic status. Not everyone has a stable WiFi connection, a quiet room, a personal computer, or even a lunch every day. When we don’t consider these and other potential disparities and obstacles, we can severely affect students and cause them to have a negative experience with online schooling. All of that just adds to the stress that students are already dealing with, especially those without any mental health support.

“From my experience, students learn and absorb less during remote school.”

Harper Leary

From my experience, students learn and absorb less during remote school. Many things are optional, like note-taking and classwork, leading to less participation and active thinking. In-person school requires you, at the minimum, to be present, which is a whole lot better than what online school requires of the class.

With all of this being said, I understand why people are pushing for online school during this COVID-19 wave, including my parents. Even though I see where they are coming from, that doesn’t change my belief that students need to be in person — for the sake of everyone’s well-being.

Harper Leary is a sophomore in the Philadelphia School District.