Fifth graders are becoming victims of COVID-19

photography of school room
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash


I was playing golf when I ran into my friend Allie, who teaches 5th grade. She told me classes had started for the year, but only online.

When I asked her how she felt about that, she said she was sad for the students. This was a time when they needed to be together, to develop social skills, to have friends, to play together, to learn together. But one of the big problems was that she couldn’t develop a relationship with them.

And that is extraordinarily important for effective teaching. Why?

Because, to quote Howard Hendricks, “human personality is the vehicle of effective teaching.” Can 11 year old students pick up on their teacher’s personality through a screen? Perhaps, but nothing even close to spending a few hours in the same room with the whole person.

Having been a student all my life and a teacher most of it, I can attest to the truth of Hendricks’ words. The best teachers I’ve known convey far more than information when they teach. They convey care. Do Allie’s students this year know she cares about them? Perhaps they do. But if they were with her they would know it in their hearts.

But what about COVID-19?

Allie and I chatted about the harm that is being done to students by forcing them into isolation. She can see that it isn’t good for them to be separated, and she’d love to have them in a classroom. But she is also concerned about the transmission of COVID, and said she would “feel horrible” if she contributed to anyone else getting sick. Or, far worse, dying.

That is commendable and understandable, but misses part of the point.

So I asked Allie a question. “Do you think it is good to do something to a person or a group that you know is harmful to them in order to possibly protect them from something else that might be harmful to them?”

She paused, pondered, and said, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

What’s the point?

We’ve known for centuries that imposed isolation is hard on us. In fact, short of execution, the worst form of punishment inflicted on prisoners is solitary confinement.

gray stainless steel bed frame
Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash


I’m not saying that keeping children home from school is equivalent to solitary confinement, but it is similar in some ways. All of us want and need alone time, but all of us want and need social interaction.

In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland creates and befriends and loves Wilson, a volleyball. Clearly being alone was taking its toll on Chuck, as it would on anyone. I’m not saying that keeping kids apart is the same as keeping Chuck away from the rest of the world for four years. I am saying that separation from friends, from routine, from teachers, and from socialization is unhealthy.

How unhealthy is isolation and loneliness?

Just so you know I’m not making this up, here’s a paragraph from Psycom about isolation:

The research has been clear on this one for years: isolation and loneliness is bad for our health—both physical and mental. According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking three-quarters of a pack of cigarettes a day…every day. “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” Holt-Lunstad says.

Which brings me back to my question: “Do you think it is good to do something to a person or a group that you know is harmful to them in order to possibly protect them from something else that might be harmful to them?”

Of course this isn’t just true for 5th grade students, it is true for workers who miss their colleagues. It’s true for sports fans who miss going to games, and it’s true for worshipers who go to church.

Hard questions, real consequences

The world is filled with hard questions, and this is just one of them. No school board wants to hurt the students under their watch, but many of them are doing just that. With, I assure you, very good intentions.

They hope to prevent what they believe is a greater harm–contracting, transmitting, and dying from a disease. The data doesn’t necessarily back them up. From February 1 to June 17, 2020, there were a total of 26 COVID-19 deaths in the United States among people under 14. Half of those were under 4 years old.

All of that is according to the American Council on Science and Health. They concluded, “As shown, deaths in young people (from babies to college students) are almost non-existent.”

One thing that is part of the picture is teachers. Allie was willing to go back into the classroom, but other teachers are not so keen on that. Some may be more at risk or have family members who are more at risk. Individual cases are much easier to deal with, of course, and have more possible solutions.

Part of what makes the question of isolation hard is that we don’t immediately see the damage it does. Of course it’s also hard to immediately see the damage done by smoking 3/4 of a pack of cigarettes every day, but we know from experience that the damage is real. This damage can be that bad or worse.

It’s not just schools, you know

Kids are already starting to get back to school in places around the country, and Allie will be teaching in person again soon. But the lasting impact of isolation, both for schools and businesses, will be challenging to overcome. Psychologists have estimated that, due to the isolation that resulted from COVID, we could have as many as 75,000 additional suicides in the U.S. this year.

I hope we don’t, but I also hope that as we move forward we will think much more carefully about the decisions we make, especially those we make with good intentions.

Yes, it is far more difficult to do good than it is to have good intentions. The first takes a lot of work, because all the consequences need to be considered. The second takes mere moments and a declaration of intent.

All of this can be applied not just to COVID, of course, but to riots and looting and murder and how we respond to those. It can be applied (and should be) to police behavior and criminal behavior. It can be applied (and should be) to conversations we have with and things we say about political opponents. Every person has the right to do good, every person has the right to be good.

Let me encourage you, whether you are in a position of great authority or no authority, do good. That could not only change the world, it could save a life.

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