Tag Archives: Devos

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.”