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To Return To School Or Not To Return To School, That Is The Question

It’s July. Usually, this is the time of year that a parent’s fancy turns to thoughts of the kids going back to school. This year, with Coronavirus running rampant around the country, a great many parents are hesitant about the prospect of sending their kids back to classrooms that are potentially infested with COVID-19.

The president, vice president, and many governors are urging school boards to get kids back into class, but in many areas of the country active Coronavirus cases are at much higher levels now than they were when schools were closed back in March. This raises legitimate questions about whether it is safe for both students and teachers to assemble in close proximity to each other in brick-and-mortar classrooms with recirculated air systems. Whether schools will be able to enforce social distancing and mask requirements is also an open question as one Illinois nurse humorously illustrated on Facebook.

Masks in schools? This will be what it looks like:

Posted by Gabe Thaman on Tuesday, June 30, 2020

On one side of the argument are people who claim, quite rightly, that life must go on. A vaccine may still be years away (although if the truth be known, many of the people who take this position would refuse a vaccine even if it was available) and the country cannot simply shelter-in-place until either a vaccine or treatment is ready.

The send-them-to-school proponents also argue that there is evidence that children are not profligate spreaders of COVID-19. Statistically, children are the lowest risk demographic for Coronavirus.

A new study released on July 10 found that “children infrequently transmit Covid-19 to each other or to adults and that many schools, provided they follow appropriate social distancing guidelines and take into account rates of transmission in their community, can and should reopen in the fall” [emphasis mine]. One obvious problem is that the children who are most likely to be sent back to school are probably those whose parents are most likely to completely disregard social distancing and mask guidelines. Many of these children will be the sons and daughters of the Karens who flip out when asked to wear a mask in the grocery store. (I don’t have anything against Karens per se. I’ve known several and they don’t usually fit the stereotype.)

A second issue is that low-risk is not the same as no-risk. Young children can and do contract and die from Coronavirus. There is also a condition, Pediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome Temporally associated with SARS-CoV-2 (PIMS-TS), that affects some children exposed to COVID-19. PIMS-TS is thought to be rare but can be fatal and may leave long term coronary damage in survivors. The uncertainty about PIMS-TS underscores that there is still a lot that is not known or understood about COVID-19 in general.

While children are generally less susceptible to COVID, even the age of the child makes a difference. Statistics of US Coronavirus deaths show that older children, such as those in their late teens, are at substantially higher risk than young children under five. This is a far smaller risk than for senior adults but it is substantially greater than for other diseases such as the flu. If social distancing breaks down and students do contract COVID-19, an even bigger risk may be that they take it home with them and infect parents and grandparents who at higher risk. These adults may spread the virus throughout their workplaces and community.

There is also a substantial risk to teachers and other school employees. Many teachers are in high-risk age categories and may have other aggravating factors as well. As one teacher posted to her Facebook page, “Let me say this loud for those in the back—Teachers are not responsible for the recovery of the economy, babysitting children, or ‘getting us back to normal.’ Stop trying to guilt us into risking our lives for the government’s failure to act.”

That’s a fair point. Not much seems to have been done in the past four months to limit the spread of Coronavirus or prepare for new surges of cases. In fact, the opposite seems true. In July, the US is still experiencing a PPE shortage despite the lead time of the past four months.

Add to that the possibility that the virus is more easily spread in enclosed places with central air conditioning systems. Several studies have indicated that the virus may be thriving in the Southern summer because the heat is driving people into air-conditioned buildings which may be able to spread aerosol droplets containing the virus over greater distances.

In April and May, we flattened the curve and then we fattened it in June. Now many states are reporting that their hospital systems are threatened to be overwhelmed by the onslaught of 60,000 new cases every day. When schools closed in mid-March, the US was reporting about 1,000 new cases every day. Some of the increase can be explained by more testing, which was woefully inadequate in March, but rising positivity rates in many states confirm that Coronavirus has again gone viral (pun intended).

Essential workers have been going to work since the onset of the pandemic in March, but many of these essential workers have more personal protective equipment than teachers would have. Many essential workers also are better able to social distance and don’t have to be as close to others for as long as a teacher in a classroom full of children.

If a teacher is exposed to or contracts Coronavirus, we can expect that they will have to self-quarantine for two weeks. That will mean that the class will be under the control of a substitute teacher, who may or may not be qualified to lead the class. Even if the teacher is asymptomatic and can teach from home via Zoom, an adult will still have to be present to control the class. (My hat is off to subs. I subbed for a few days while I was laid off several years ago. It remains the hardest work I’ve ever done.)

Another factor is that parents of many young children have few options for childcare as they go back to work. This is especially true since many workers will be working fewer hours and/or taking pay cuts due to the economic impacts of Coronavirus. Daycare is expensive, especially for low-income single-parents. Many rely on schools to keep their young children during the day and at after-school programs so that they can earn a paycheck. Whether schools open or not will directly impact the finances of countless American families.

Muddying the waters further is that many of these families will have an incentive to send their children to school, even if they are sick. Parents lose income or use sick days to stay home with sick children. If a child gets exposed to COVID-19 at school, the entire family will most likely be expected to self-quarantine. That will come at the cost of more economic hardship.

The reason for mulling over the pros and cons of going back to school is that it is not a hypothetical question for my family. Here in Georgia, the new school year starts in August and the local school system in which my two children are enrolled announced its plan for the 2020-2021 school year a few days ago. Under the plan, students will have three options on how to go back to school.

The first option is to have children attend traditional “in-person” classes in schools. Under this option, the school system says that children who are sick will not be penalized for missing classes and should be kept home. They also note that face coverings would be required on buses and temperatures would be checked at the beginning of each school day. There was no mention of a requirement for masks or social distancing in classrooms.

The second option is virtual or digital school. The school system offers two online options for students, which require an 18-week commitment for upper-level grades and nine weeks for K-6 students. A local teacher would be assigned to monitor progress and “help with any questions.”

The third option is for parents to homeschool their children. Unlike the first two options, this would require withdrawing students from the county school system.

Public opinion on going back to school is mixed, even in my heavily Republican county. An informal poll on a Facebook group dedicated to the county issues so far shows that most people are opposed to reopening schools and think that they will be forced to close again by more than a two-to-one margin over those in favor of sending the kids back.

I don’t believe that closing schools was an error in March. As any parent or teacher can tell you, schools are hotbeds of infection even when there is no pandemic. School closures were one of the mitigation strategies that helped to contain the spread of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Of course, Coronavirus is not the flu, as I’ve said many times. It is much worse in most respects but children are at lower risk.

At this point, we haven’t made a decision on whether to send our kids back to school. We take the safety of our family and the threat of Coronavirus seriously, but we also have not been holed up at home since March. Going out is a calculated risk and all factors must be weighed.

I do appreciate the fact that our school system is giving parents the option to decide what is best for their family. That won’t be true for everyone around the country.

What do you think about reopening schools? Join the discussion on the Resurgent Facebook page and Twitter feed?

If you would like to continue the discussion on social media, you can visit David Thornton’s Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

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