Doc­tors: Virus spread, not politics, should guide schools

The News Tribune - - Nation & World - BY LIND­SEY TANNER As­so­ci­ated Press

As the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pushes full steam ahead to force schools to re­sume in-person ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lic health ex­perts warn that a one-size-fit­sall re­open­ing could drive in­fec­tion and death rates even higher.

They’re urg­ing a more cau­tious ap­proach, which many lo­cal gov­ern­ments and school dis­tricts are al­ready pur­su­ing.

There are too many un­cer­tain­ties and vari­ables, they say, for back-toschool to be back-to-nor­mal.

Where is the virus spread­ing rapidly? Do students live with aged grand­par­ents? Do teachers have high-risk health con­di­tions that would make on­line teach­ing safest? Do in­fected chil­dren eas­ily spread COVID-19 to each other and to adults?

Re­gard­ing the lat­ter, some ev­i­dence sug­gests they don’t, but a big government study aims to find bet­ter proof. Re­sults won’t be avail­able be­fore the fall, and some schools are slated to re­open in just a few weeks.

“These are com­pli­cated is­sues. You can’t just charge straight ahead,” Dr. Tom Frieden, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, said Wed­nes­day dur­ing an on­line brief­ing.

Chil­dren in­fected with coro­n­avirus are more likely than adults to have mild ill­nesses, but their risk for se­vere dis­ease and death isn’t zero. While a virus-linked in­flam­ma­tory con­di­tion is un­com­mon, most chil­dren who de­velop it re­quire in­ten­sive care, and a few have died. Doc­tors don’t know which chil­dren are at risk.

“The sin­gle most im­por­tant thing we can do to keep our schools safe has noth­ing to do with what hap­pens in school. It’s how well we con­trol COVID-19 in the com­mu­nity,” Frieden said. “Right now there are places around the coun­try where the virus is spread­ing ex­plo­sively and it would be dif­fi­cult if not im­pos­si­ble to op­er­ate schools safely un­til the virus is under bet­ter con­trol.”

Zahrah Wat­tier teaches high school in Galve­ston, Texas, where cases and deaths have been spik­ing. Un­til the state re­cently said schools must re­open to in-person classes, her dis­trict had been weigh­ing op­tions many oth­ers are con­sid­er­ing, in­clud­ing full-time on­line teach­ing or a hy­brid mix.

Wat­tier’s school has mostly His­panic and Black students, many from low­in­come fam­i­lies; al­most 70% qual­ify for free or re­duced-cost lunches and many have par­ents who work in “es­sen­tial” jobs that in­crease po­ten­tial ex­po­sure to the virus. On­line ed­u­ca­tion was hard for many with lim­ited in­ter­net ac­cess, and Wat­tier knows in-person classes can help even the play­ing field.

But she’s wor­ried.

“My school has over 2,000 students. That’s over 2,000 ex­po­sures in a day,” she said. “It’s a lot to think about. It’s my job. It’s some­thing I choose to do, it’s some­thing I love. Now it comes at a re­ally high risk.”

She also wor­ries about her 2-year-old twins in day care and a 4-year-old who has asthma and is start­ing preschool. Her par­ents live with the fam­ily, and they’re both high-risk.

The Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics, whose guid­ance the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has cited to sup­port its de­mands, says the goal is for all students to be phys­i­cally present in school. But it says school dis­tricts need to be flex­i­ble, con­sult with pub­lic health au­thor­i­ties and be ready to pivot as virus ac­tiv­ity waxes and wanes.

“It is not that the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics thinks this is a done deal be­cause we have put out guid­ance,” said Dr. Ni­cholas Beers, a mem­ber of the academy’s school health coun­cil. “But what we do know is that we need to have a more re­al­is­tic di­a­logue about the im­pli­ca­tions of vir­tual learn­ing on the fu­ture of chil­dren. We have left whole swaths of so­ci­ety be­hind, whether it’s be­cause they have lim­ited ac­cess to a com­puter or broad­band in­ter­net,” or be­cause of other chal­lenges that on­line ed­u­ca­tion can’t ad­dress.

Fol­low­ing academy guide­lines would mean big changes for most schools. Mask-wearing would be strongly en­cour­aged for adult staff and students ex­cept the youngest.

Desks would be distanced at least 3 feet apart; the CDC rec­om­mends 6 feet. Both the academy and the CDC sug­gest lim­it­ing adults al­lowed in schools, in­clud­ing par­ents, and can­cel­ing group ac­tiv­i­ties like choir and as­sem­blies. Stag­gered ar­rival and dis­missal times, out­door classes and keep­ing kids in the same class­room all day are other op­tions.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald

Trump has threat­ened fed­eral fund­ing cuts for dis­tricts that don’t fully re­open. While most fund­ing typ­i­cally comes from state and lo­cal sources, ex­perts say schools will need more fed­eral fund­ing, not less, to re­open safely. Masks, ex­tra clean­ing sup­plies or jan­i­tors, ad­di­tional class­room space, men­tal health sup­port for students and staff trau­ma­tized by the pan­demic are among po­ten­tial costs. And with more par­ents out of work, more chil­dren will qual­ify for fed­er­ally funded school lunches.

Dr. Emily Lan­don, a Univer­sity of Chicago in­fec­tious dis­ease spe­cial­ist, is help­ing the univer­sity and a cam­pus preK-12 school de­cide how to re­open safely.


Des Moines Pub­lic Schools cus­to­dian Cyn­thia Adams cleans a desk Wed­nes­day in a class­room at Brubaker El­e­men­tary School in Iowa.

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