There is a lot of discussion about whether schools should reopen as the pandemic rages. Over the past few weeks, I’ve offered some of my thoughts on the subject as well as talked to several teachers to get their opinions. Our school district in Georgia, which is slated to begin classes on August 10, offered parents the option of in-person classes, virtual classes, or withdrawing their children for homeschooling. My wife and I considered all the options with an open mind and finally reached the same conclusion.
Let me begin by saying that we are generally happy with our school district. Our children’s teachers have been good for the most part. Not a single one has ever taught our children to hate America. My wife is a substitute teacher so she has insider knowledge of how the local educational sausage is made. That hasn’t been a good thing in some districts where we have lived, but she has been happy with the teachers and administrators in our current location.
Our kids like their schools as well. Both of my children, who are middle and high school age, said that they preferred to return to in-person classes ceteris paribus (economist speak for “all other conditions remaining the same”), a phrase that neither of them knows but a concept that they understand. My wife and I also preferred that they go back to class… ceteris paribus.
The problem is that all other conditions are not remaining the same from previous years. We live in a rural county where 14 people have died of Coronavirus. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but Georgia’s Coronavirus statistics page shows that our sparsely populated county is averaging about 10 new cases of COVID-19 daily. More than 10 percent of county COVID patients have required hospitalization, a fact not considered by the reopen crowd which trumpets a 99 percent survival rate for the disease. (The case mortality rate for my county is actually 2.6 percent.)
Although our county is rural, our next-door neighbor is a large urban area where the numbers are much worse. This neighboring county is reporting about 100 new cases every day. There is a lot of traffic between the two counties as people go to work and shop in the city. The virus level in both counties is much higher now than it was back in March when schools closed for the last term.
The back-to-school push comes at a time when the pandemic in both Georgia and the United States is raging out of control. In Georgia, the number of new cases is averaging more than 3,000 per day while nationally we are seeing more than 70,000 new cases daily. Deaths are trending up in both Georgia and the US as a whole.
Many of the cases are serious and not asymptomatic. Upwards of 400 Georgians have been hospitalized for Coronavirus every day this week, leading to shortages of hospital beds. Yahoo News reported on Thursday that 88 percent of the state’s ICU beds were filled.
The good news is that COVID patients are spending less time in the hospital, which helps to relieve some pressure. Doctors attribute this improvement to having gained experience in how to treat the disease more efficiently. The bad news is that COVID-19 has been found to be a whole-body disease and survivors can experience long-term health damage, another factor seldom mentioned by those who push for a return to normal.
The situation both in Georgia and the nation as a whole is so dire that many health experts have recommended another shelter-in-place. Earlier this week, 125 public health experts signed an open letter asking leaders to “Tell the American people the truth about the virus, even when it’s hard” and to “take bold action to save lives — even when it means shutting down again.”
The dangers of reopening schools should be obvious. Although children are more resistant to Coronavirus than adults, they do die from the disease or from an associated multi-system inflammatory syndrome.
What’s more, children may not be dying from COVID-19 in large numbers but they do spread it to people who are more high-risk. Children who go to in-person classes may end up carrying the disease home to vulnerable parents or grandparents. Of course, teachers who spend all day with possibly infectious children can also be at high risk.
Additionally, there is strong evidence that central HVAC systems can spread Coronavirus over much farther distances than the traditional six-foot distance mandated for social distancing. Schools and office air conditioners cranking out cold air in the Southern summer may be to blame for some of the recent spike in Coronavirus cases.
Finally, there is the anti-mask zealotry to contend with. I haven’t seen polling on the subject but my sense from talking with other parents in community chat groups is that many, if not most, of the parents who are sending their children into the classroom are the same people who view masks as tyranny.
Our school district has said that masks will be “strongly encouraged” but not required. In practice, this means that many children and teachers won’t be wearing them. This means that the virus is more likely to spread.
On Thursday, Georgia’s State Board of Education failed to act on a proposal to delay the start of the school year until September. This is despite the danger signs and the news that the school that President Trump’s son attends will remain closed. President Trump also recently canceled a large part of the Republican convention, yet schools are expected to reopen as usual. Some districts are acting on their own to delay the first day of school, just as most businesses here are now acting unilaterally to require masks without a state mandate, but others are forging ahead.
So we made the decision that we thought was best for our family. We decided to enroll our children in virtual school rather than sending them to in-person classes. We view it as the safe thing to do, not only for our extended family with elderly and immune-compromised relatives but for the teachers and our community as well.
We did not succumb to irrational fear. We assessed the risks and rewards of returning to traditional classes and decided that it was not appropriate to take one for the team by sending our kids into a viral hot zone.
It’s also likely that virtual students will have an advantage for the coming year. I fully expect that some in-person teachers will become exposed and have to take self-isolate at home or be absent for long periods of illness. Brick-and-mortar classroom students may spend weeks with substitutes and make-work while virtual students keep up with the curriculum.
And that’s assuming that the schools can find substitutes. My wife reports that few of her sub friends are willing to sign on for the coming year. The $55 daily rate in a job that does not provide health insurance is apparently not very enticing at this point.
Our children were initially disappointed to learn that they would be doing online classes for at least the next semester. Their disappointment was quickly tempered, however, when they talked to their friends and realized that most of them were not going back to in-person classes either. It seems that many parents are voting with their feet for virtual classes.
Parents considering the possibility of needlessly exposing their children and families are turning out to be more conservative about the risks to public health than our political leaders. To a certain extent, that’s good, but with obvious danger threatening their citizens, our elected officials should be taking the lead in protecting public health.
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