Open­ing schools

Hard choices to keep kids safe

The Maui News - - Front Page - By MICHELLE R. SMITH and CARLA K. JOHNSON Tmhe As­so­ci­ated Press

PROV­I­DENCE, R.I. — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in­sists that schools re­open this fall. Many par­ents, ed­u­ca­tors, doc­tors and econ­o­mists want the same thing. But get­ting chil­dren back to school safely could mean keep­ing high-risk spots like bars and gyms closed.

A grow­ing cho­rus of pub­lic health ex­perts is urg­ing fed­eral, state and lo­cal of­fi­cials to re­con­sider how they are re­open­ing the broader econ­omy, and to pri­or­i­tize K-12 schools — an ef­fort that will likely re­quire clos­ing some other es­tab­lish­ments to help curb the virus spread and give chil­dren the best shot at re­turn­ing to class­rooms.

“We need to think about what our pri­or­i­ties are as a so­ci­ety, and some other things may just have to wait,” said He­len Jenk­ins, an in­fec­tious disease epi­demi­ol­o­gist at Bos­ton Univer­sity. “I think there are hard choices hav­ing to be made by de­ci­sion mak­ers.”

Schools are cru­cial to com­mu­ni­ties in ways that go be­yond ba­sic learn­ing. They also pro­vide chil­dren with friends, food and other sup­port sys­tems. The Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics strongly sup­ports chil­dren phys­i­cally re­turn­ing to class­rooms.

Schools are also a key part of get­ting the econ­omy go­ing, said David Roth­schild, an econ­o­mist at Mi­crosoft Re­search.

“It’s what al­lows so many adults, es­pe­cially peo­ple with­out much means, to get back to work,” Roth­schild said. “There’s this huge down­stream ef­fect in the short run of get­ting peo­ple back into school, which you may not be able to say in the same sort of way for bars and restau­rants.”

If a U.S. com­mu­nity has a high level of in­fec­tion, pub­lic health ex­perts say re­open­ing class­rooms will be risky, even if schools try to re­quire masks and fol­low so­cial dis­tanc­ing guide­lines.

Hun­dreds of chil­dren and staff have been in­fected in COVID-19 out­breaks tied to grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies and sum­mer camps, in­clud­ing in Mis­souri, Texas, Louisiana, Ge­or­gia, North Carolina, Ten­nessee,

New York and Florida. Or­ga­niz­ers of at least one of the camps said they were fol­low­ing guide­lines is­sued by the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion.

That’s why it’s so im­por­tant, ex­perts say, to con­sider the wider com­mu­nity and not think of schools as closed sys­tems, un­af­fected by what the virus is do­ing out­side their walls.

Chil­dren are less likely to be­come se­ri­ously ill than adults, and there’s not much ev­i­dence that chil­dren are driv­ing trans­mis­sion, said Jen­nifer Nuzzo, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity’s COVID-19 Test­ing In­sights Ini­tia­tive. Still, there is a risk they could trans­mit the virus to oth­ers, in­clud­ing teach­ers or vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple they live with.

“That is a rea­son to think about how to im­prove safety and to re­duce the risk in school en­vi­ron­ments,” Nuzzo said. “Those mea­sures and the move to re­open schools should pro­ceed be­fore the higher risk en­vi­ron­ments” like bars, restau­rants, gyms and other in­door spa­ces “where adults are packed to­gether and they have a hard time so­cial dis­tanc­ing.”

If trans­mis­sion can be re­duced in the wider com­mu­nity, she said, it will make it safer for schools to re­con­vene.

“We should be pri­or­i­tiz­ing the re­open­ing of those pub­lic spa­ces that have known ben­e­fits and low risks,” Nuzzo said. “And we think that schools are one of those.”

Even be­fore Trump’s push this week, Democrats and pub­lic health ex­perts were al­ready talk­ing about how im­por­tant it is for chil­dren to re­turn to class­rooms.

When Demo­cratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive order last week re­quir­ing masks, she told leg­isla­tive lead­ers it was be­cause she wanted to re­open class­rooms. Michi­gan Gov. Gretchen Whit­mer, a Demo­crat, made sim­i­lar re­marks when she shut down in­door seat­ing in bars in some ar­eas af­ter out­breaks.

And Demo­cratic New Mex­ico Gov. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham cited schools when she said there would be more ag­gres­sive enforcemen­t and fines for peo­ple who flout the state’s mask re­quire­ment.

“The chil­dren of this state and the stu­dents de­serve a chance to go back to school,” Gr­isham said.

Repub­li­cans have also been talk­ing about it. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, vis­it­ing Ari­zona last week, praised Repub­li­can Gov. Doug Ducey’s clo­sure of bars, gyms and movie the­aters. Pence tied the steps to eco­nomic growth and get­ting “kids back to school.”

White House ad­viser Kellyanne Con­way told Fox News last week that schools are es­sen­tial to get­ting peo­ple back to work.

“Do you want to open the bars now or do you want to open the schools and the day care cen­ters in a few short weeks? I vote for the lat­ter,” Con­way said.

On Twit­ter and at a White House event, the pres­i­dent this week claimed with­out ev­i­dence that Democrats want to keep schools closed for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons and not health rea­sons.

In a call with gov­er­nors Tues­day, Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary

Betsy DeVos said the na­tion’s schools must “fully re­open and fully op­er­ate.” A record­ing of the call was ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press.

But school lead­ers and teach­ers’ groups said that mes­sage is not help­ful with­out thought­ful re­open­ing plans and fed­eral sup­port, in­clud­ing ad­di­tional money to pay for ex­tra clean­ing, masks and so­cial spac­ing. So far, schools are not get­ting what they need, said Dan Domenech, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of AASA, The School Su­per­in­ten­dents As­so­ci­a­tion.

“What we’re hear­ing — it’s al­most like a setup to open schools at all costs,” Domenech said of DeVos’ re­marks. “When chil­dren are sick and when chil­dren die, I hope that she can rec­on­cile her guid­ance with that.”

Pub­lic health ex­perts hope the con­ver­sa­tion can stay fo­cused on the me­chan­ics of open­ing schools. Some of them are par­ents who have seen their chil­dren struggle with on­line ed­u­ca­tion.

In other virus-re­lated de­vel­op­ments:

¯ The to­tal num­ber of con­firmed cases in the U.S. has passed 3 mil­lion, mean­ing nearly 1 in ev­ery 100 peo­ple has been con­firmed as in­fected.

¯ Asian and Euro­pean of­fi­cials pleaded with cit­i­zens to re­spect mod­est pre­cau­tions as sev­eral coun­tries saw their out­breaks ac­cel­er­ate or sought to pre­vent new in­fec­tions Fol­low­ing two nights of an­tilock­down protests in Ser­bia, author­i­ties banned mass gath­er­ings in the cap­i­tal of Bel­grade amid an uptick in con­firmed COVID-19 cases.

AP photo

Des Moines Pub­lic Schools cus­to­dian Tracy Har­ris cleans chairs in a class­room at Brubaker El­e­men­tary School on Wed­nes­day in Des Moines, Iowa. Get­ting chil­dren back to school safely could mean keep­ing high-risk spots like bars and gyms closed. That’s the lat­est think­ing from some pub­lic health ex­perts.

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