Tag Archives: Covid-19

Reopening Schools Issues and Evidence

21 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/21/2020

The President of the United States and his Secretary of Education have demanded schools open with in-person classes five days a week. Many parents are not confident their children will be safe and significant numbers of teachers are profoundly frightened. How does the rhetoric square with credible scientific evidence concerning the Covid-19 pandemic?

President Trump has tweeted,

“In Germany, Denmark, Norway,  Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”

Michelle Goldberg of the NY Times wrote, “… with their crude attempts at coercion, they’ve politicized school reopening just as Trump politicized mask-wearing and hydroxychloroquine.”

Goldberg goes on to cite American Federation of Teacher President, Randi Weingarten, as saying the administration just made reopening schools more difficult. Randi described Trumps threats to withhold school funding as “empty, but the distrust they have caused is not.”

Weingarten also reported hearing from many teachers who are concerned that reopening would be done rashly.

In an USA Today opinion piece, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the President of America’s largest teachers’ union, charged, “… the Trump administration’s plan is appallingly reckless.” She also points out that the vast majorities of American schools have not returned to their 2008 funding levels and have lain off more than 300,000 employees.

Garcia argues that the Covid-19 induced revenue crisis is making opening schools safely impossible during the accelerating contagion.

Officials within the Trump administration are confidently claiming opening schools can be done safely. At a White House conference on reopening schools, Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services stated, “We can get back to school safely.” Regarding concerns that many schools do not meet Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, he stated, “CDC guidance is guidance and no-one should use it not to reopen schools.”

At the same conference, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr. Sally Goza, said AAP “strongly advocates schools open safely.” She stated that “children are less likely to be infected” and “less likely to spread the virus.”

Goza contends that it is critically important for students to be physically present as long as safety measures can be maintained. She added that schools need more resources.

President Trump’s top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, recently stated, “If we don’t reopen the schools that would be a setback to a true economic recovery.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says “It’s not a matter of if schools should reopen, it’s simply a matter of how.”

The Department of Education under DeVos’s leadership is pushing back against charges that they are politicizing school opening. A released statement said, “if anyone is politicizing this issue it’s the unions, who are Democrats’ operatives, who are fear-mongering and denying the science that says it’s safe and better for kids’ overall health to be back in school.”

Republican state administrations in Iowa and Florida have mandated that all schools in their states reopen 5-days a week with in person instruction.

In California, Democratic Governor, Gavin Newsom has ordered all schools in counties on the coronavirus “watch list” to open online only. That covers about 80% of the students in the nation’s most populous state.

The Washington Post’s Matt Viser reports that Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden has called for flexibility with reopening schools. Biden asserts, “If we do this wrong, we will put lives at risk and set our economy and our country back.”

Viser sums up Biden’s just released plan,

“Biden urged caution, saying that each district should make its own decisions based on local conditions, and that schools in areas with high infection rates should not reopen too soon. He also called on Congress to pass new emergency funding to help the schools.”

These confusing claims and counterclaims motivate looking into the best evidence the scientific community can provide.

What the Evidence Shows

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “science should not stay in the way of school reopening.” She cited a Journal of the American Medical Association pediatrics study that found the risk of critical illness from Covid-19 for children is far less than the seasonal flu.

She stated, “The science is on our side here.” And added that states need to “simply follow the science” and open schools.

However, McEnany, did not make it clear that the study she cited involved just 48 children treated in U.S. and Canadian intensive care units. It is true that most were not critically ill but 18 needed ventilator treatment and two died.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, has noted that several studies from Europe and Asia have suggested that young children are less likely to get infected and to spread the virus. However, he says like the study McEnany cited, those studies are mostly small and flawed.

There is a new study that Dr. Jha describes as “one of the best studies we’ve had to date on this issue.”

The CDC has posted the study, Contact Tracing during Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, South Korea, 2020”, to its website. This large scale study looked at 59,073 contacts traced from 5,706 covid-19 confirmed patients between January 20 and March 27, 2020.

Korean Study Table 2

Korean Study Data Table Indexed by Patient Age

The important point in this table is that infants do transmit covid-19 but at a lower rate (between 1.3% and 13.7%). However, middle school and high school aged children transmitted the disease at a rate equal to all of the older groupings.

In the paper’s literature study, the authors observe, “… a recent report from Shenzhen, China, showed that the proportion of infected children increased during the outbreak from 2% to 13%, suggesting the importance of school closure.”

Schools have been reopening in various countries since this spring. A key characteristic that countries reopening schools took into consideration was virus transmission rates. Solid testing regimes and contract testing were believed essential.

The following table used reopening transmission rates data from a post by Dr. Nan Fulcher and Justin Parmenter plus the transmission rates for July 17th which were derived using the John Hopkins University Covid-19 Dashboard and Worldometer population data.

Covid Per 10,000 Foreign table

All of the counties in the table above with the exception of Israel have maintained low transmission rates while opening schools. In the Israeli case, The University of Washington Department of Global Health reports,

“Two weeks after school re-opening, COVID-19 outbreaks were observed in classrooms, including 130 cases in one school alone. By June 3, there were 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 244 positive SARS-CoV-2 tests among students and staff across multiple schools.”

“Due to the crowded nature of the schools system, physical distancing of students within schools has not been widely adopted and control measures have focused on closing schools with reported cases, extensive testing, and quarantine of students and staff with a potential SARS-CoV-2 exposure.”

In his push to reopen schools, President Trump claims that many countries reopened school with no problem. That seems to be mostly true, however, it omits saying many counties did have issues. New Century Foundation Fellow, Connor Williams notes,

Aside from some early public-health setbacks, France has been able to keep schools open. But other communities have not been so lucky. Israel reclosed some schools after a spike in covid-19 cases. Beijing recently shuttered its schools again as the pandemic returned.”

While it does seem possible to safely reopen schools based on the experience of countries around the globe, the United States faces two major unresolved obstacles; facilities need upgrading and transmission rates need to be controlled.

The following Covid-19 transmission rates were calculated using data from Wikipedia’s 2020 population estimates and the John Hopkins Covid-19 Dashboard.

Covid Per 10,000 table

In addition to this data showing that in most states the Covid-19 transmission rates are ghastly, school facilities on average are in terrible shape.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine just issued guidance for reopening schools. The Academies chair for the study, Enriqueta Bond, stated, “One of the shocks to me is that over 50 percent of the school buildings are awful.”

New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli shared in a report on the Academies’ guidance, “Some 54 percent of public school districts need to update or replace facilities in their school buildings, and 41 percent should replace heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in at least half of their schools, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office.”

The Academies guidance says the cost of retrofits will total approximately $1.8 million for a school district with eight school buildings and around 3,200 students.

The evidence shows that most of America is not ready to reopen schools. The retrofits have not been started and the needed financing has not been approved. Transmission rates are out of control.

The Conclusion of Professionals

New York public school teacher, Christine Vaccaro, published an opinion piece in USA Today. Her ending statement is prescient:

“Abandoned by any semblance of national leadership during a raging pandemic, students, teachers and staff are being told to jump into the deep end and return to school buildings. They will be risking their lives and their families’ lives, and endangering their communities to do so. All the precious time and resources spent to implement hybrid models and social distancing protocols will be washed away with the building’s first positive COVID-19 case. Then it will be a hard pivot back home, using the same scattershot remote learning practices developed in an emergency.

“That is why the smartest, most practical strategy is marshaling energy and dollars into developing as robust and equitable a remote learning plan as possible. This is far from ideal. We know remote teaching is not even remotely teaching. But it will save lives, offer the most consistent education for our children this fall — and provide a solid foundation on which to build a stronger hybrid model, later in the year.”

New Century Foundation Fellow, Connor Williams, ended his article succinctly,

It’s time to face the central fact of a pandemic: There’s no way to pretend our way around flattening the curve. Until we actually stop the virus’s spread, efforts to reopen schools in most communities will fail.”

Don’t Sacrifice Teachers and Students to a Neoliberal God

8 Jul

By Thomas Ultican 7/8/2020

The US is not ready to open schools. We blew it. Let’s face reality squarely and quit making outcomes in our country even worse.

New York’s Michael Flanagan Ed. D. wrote,

“The pressure to reopen schools, and return to work, will continue to intensify, no matter how many new cases of Covid-19 there are each day, and the numbers are growing. Businesses, politicians and even health professionals are in the process of trying to convince us that sending our kids back to school will be safe.”

As if to prove Flanagan’s claim, Harvard’s “Education Next” published a Frederick Hess interview with Jeb Bush where he repeatedly emphasized,

“First and foremost, schools have to open with the health and safety of our students and teachers being paramount. But they have to open, or we will have huge economic, health, and social challenges.”

Not to be outdone by “low energy Jeb”, the President of the United States employed his normal elegance when tweeting,

“Schools in our country should be opened ASAP. Much very good information now available.”

Republican Congressmen, Jim Banks of Indiana and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, have introduced the Reopen Our Schools Act. Congressman Banks declared,

“Reopening our schools is the lynchpin to reopening our economy. Many parents rely on their kids going to school so they can go to work. To get our society up and running again, we need our children back in school.”

The Economist claims schools should be the first economic institutions to reopen and added,

“Those who work at home are less productive if distracted by loud wails and the eerie silence that portends jam being spread on the sofa. Those who work outside the home cannot do so unless someone minds their offspring.”

These neoliberal forces are promoting the idea that teachers and children must be thrust into an unsafe environment so the world’s economic engines can continue providing decent return on investment. Make no mistake, face to face teaching during this pandemic without proper conditions is fraught with danger.

Political leaders know that so they are racing to pass legislation indemnifying schools from legal liability.  In California, Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, and his coauthor State Senator Susan Rubio, D-LA, introduced AB1384 to shield schools. O’Donnell made this ludicrous statement,

“We need to do everything we can to protect the students, and the schools. My bill will indemnify school districts as long as they follow all the state and local health directives. We still want school districts to use best practices when it comes to student safety.”

In May, Mitch McConnell announced that the US Senate was taking up legislation to protect schools from lawsuits. He stated, “Can you image the nightmare that could unfold this fall when K-12 kids are still at home, when colleges and universities are still not open?”

When it comes to political malfeasance, Florida is determined not to be outdone. Richard Corcoran, Commissioner of Education, is the former Speaker of the House and a charter school owner.  On Monday, he released an order stating, “Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students …”

The forced school reopening amounts to a conscription putting teachers, students and families at risk. Florida trails only New York and California in confirmed Covid-19 cases and Miami-Dade County is a national leader in cases. At this time, Covid-19 cases in the state are spiking to new record levels.

Obviously, Commissioner Corcoran’s order ignores health and safety. It is driven solely by a neoliberal ideology valuing commercial enterprise above human life.

Could-a Should-a Would-a

If the United States had acted decisively in late February and shut down businesses, instituted robust testing, contact tracing and social distancing, we probably could safely open schools now. It is also likely that more than 120,000 victims of the virus would be alive today.

Even in March when it became clear to everyone but a fringe element that we had a huge problem, a united response led by the federal government would have put us in position to reopen in-school education.

Instead of a united effort to effectively meet the Sars-CoV-2 crisis, we experienced politicization and demagoguery.

By the end of March, California had an effective shutdown in place with almost universal cooperation. Then ultra-conservative media started agitating against the shut down.

Purported healthcare professionals like neurosurgeon, Russell Blaylock, started discouraging mask wearing as did the discredited Irish scientist Delores Cahill.

In late April, The Conservative Daily Post reported on claims by two Bakersfield, California emergency room doctors, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi. These doctors from Accelerated Urgent Care claimed that the nationwide lockdown policies are not an appropriate reaction to the “China-originated novel coronavirus” and were causing other healthcare problems to be ignored.

Kristi Noem, the Republican Governor of South Dakota, publically opposed CDC health guidelines saying, “I believe in our freedoms.” This happened just days after the President of the United States took to twitter and attacked the Democratic governors of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, calling for their states to be liberated.

Trump Liberate tweet

Attack on Governor Gretchen Whitmer for Implementing CDC Guidelines in her State

This constant degrading of the public response to Covid-19 led to more people joining in protest against state policies. Soon conservative groups were demanding that schools be reopened immediately.

LA Times Open Schools Gaphic

This Los Angeles Times Picture was taken in Orange County May 9, 2020

Because our response to the novel coronavirus was undermined, states do not meet the safety criteria for opening schools.

The Whitehouse has created an opening America website with proposed state or regional gating criteria.  They include:

“Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period AND Downward trajectory of covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period”

“Ability to quickly set up safe and efficient screening and testing sites for symptomatic individuals and trace contacts of COVID+ results”

“Ensure sentinel surveillance sites are screening for asymptomatic cases and contacts for COVID+ results are traced (sites operate at locations that serve older individuals, lower-income Americans, racial minorities, and Native Americans)”

“Ability to quickly and independently supply sufficient Personal Protective Equipment and critical medical equipment to handle dramatic surge in need”

America’s schools do not meet these “gating criteria.” Covid-19 infections in the United States are accelerating, so out of control that testing with contact tracing is not possible. The following Johns Hopkins graphic makes it clear that this situation will not ameliorate quickly.

Johns Hopkins World Comparison

The Johns Hopkins Graph is Normalized to Daily Cases per Million

Teachers and Students Will Not Be Safe

Neil Demause of Fairness & Accuracy Reporting wrote on July 3rd about opening businesses. He shared,

“Infectious disease experts say that offices can be the perfect petri dishes for viral spread, involving gatherings of a large number of people, indoors, for a long time, with recirculated air. As one study (Business Insider4/28/20) of a coronavirus outbreak at a Seoul call center showed, the virus can quickly spread across an entire floor, especially in a modern open-plan office.”

It is easy to extrapolate the Korean call center to the local 3rd grade classroom.

Dartmouth Immunologist Erin Bromage states, “We know that at least 44% of all infections–and the majority of community-acquired transmissions–occur from people without any symptoms (asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people).” Professor Bromage also notes, “Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures.”

Pennsylvania educator Steven Singer observed, “And even if young people are mostly asymptomatic, chances are good they’ll spread this thing to the rest of us.” The paper Steven cited also states, “Although  clinical  manifestations  of  children’s  COVID-19  cases  were generally less severe than those of adults’ patients, young children, particularly infants, were vulnerable to infection.”

On Monday, The Daily Mail reported, “As many as half of coronavirus patients with NO symptoms may silently suffer ‘disturbing’ lung damage that leaves them oxygen-deprived without knowing it, study finds.”

Education professionals have been publishing concerns recently.

Rutgers University’s Mark Weber Ed. D. posted “How Schools Work: A Practical Guide for Policymakers During a Pandemic.” His list is not exhaustive but it gives the laymen an idea of the practicalities involved with doing school. It includes:

“The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day.”

“Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day.”

“Children cannot be expected to wear masks of any kind for the duration of a school day.”

The author and special education expert, Nancy Bailey, recently posted, 22 Reasons Why Schools Should NOT Reopen in the Fall.Among the 22 were:

“2. How Will the Flu and Covid-19 Tango?… Last January, before Covid-19 became well known, 27 children had died of the flu. What will the dance of these two illnesses look like in the fall?”

“8. Cost for Safety: The Council of State Chief School Officers estimate that schools will need $245 billion to safely reopen.”

“18. School Restrooms: … School bathroom conditions have always been a source of concern.”

“19. Teacher Qualifications: There are not enough teachers for smaller classes for social distancing. Experienced older teachers may not want to get sick. Will schools hire a glut of teachers without qualifications?”

Oakland, California high school history teacher and union organizer, Harley Litzelman, published “Teachers: Refuse to Return to Campus.”  He addressed among other issues, the likely large loss of teachers to the ill-fated open-schools-on-campus-now policy. Litzelman shared,

“A USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found that one in five teachers say they are unlikely to return to campus next year, signaling a tsunami of resignations. Chicago middle school teacher Belinda Mckinney-Childrey told ChalkBeat that “I can’t chance my health to go back. I love my job, I love what I do, but when push comes to shove, I think the majority of us will be like ‘I think we’re going to retire.’” Also, this is personal; my fiancée has serious asthma. She’s the best middle school English teacher I know, but she won’t teach next year if she’s forced to return to campus.”

Merrie Najimy, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, participated in a televised interview about her objection to Governor Baker’s plans to reopen schools. She was asked about the American Association of Pediatrics call for schools to open “as soon as possible.” Aren’t they aligned with Governor Baker’s position? Najimy pointed out, “The AAP does not have practical experience in school and … they are not absolutists.”

Steven Singer posted, “Do NOT Play Russian Roulette with Our Lives – No In-Person Schooling During a Pandemic.” In the article, Steven declares, “Reopening schools to in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic is tantamount to Russian Roulette with the lives of students, teachers and families.”

On Monday, education writer, Jenifer Berkshire, tweeted, “The school reopening fight just gets crazier – and more politically confusing. In growing # of states GOP now saying ‘open the schools or else’”

Community leaders, religious leaders and schools will need to work together for a solution to child care. There are many unused recreation centers, school facilities, libraries and church facilities available. Forcing children and teachers into an unsafe situation is not the only way to solve the child care dilemma.

In order to reopen schools safely, there are two non-negotiable imperatives. First, the rampaging virus must be brought under control through testing and robust contact tracing. Second, the US Senate must send schools $245 billion dollars to pay for the social distancing logistics, supplies, staff and transportation enhancements required.

Since there is no way to meet the first requirement and it is unlikely the Republican led Senate will meet the second. Let us quit pretending and concentrate our efforts on creating enhanced distance learning this fall.