Contact Tracing Does NOT Prove Schools Are Safe During a Pandemic

“No close contacts were identified within the school district.”

That’s what it says on today’s email from my district reporting that two elementary staff and one student tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s what it said on Tuesday’s email about a different elementary staff member testing positive.

And the email from last Sunday about two elementary staff, and last Monday about a middle school staff member, and the one from Nov. 19 about an entire Kindergarten class and its teachers being quarantined.

Actually, that last email said the outbreak was limited to the Kindergarten class and teachers – that no close contacts were identified beyond its doors, in the building or the wider district as a whole.

However, considering that at least five more elementary teachers and another student tested positive later, I’m not sure I believe it.

All of which prompts the question – how accurate is contact tracing?

How Contact Tracing Works

Let’s say a little girl, Ava, gets COVID-19.

Where did she get it from?

Let’s do some contact tracing to find out.

We ask Ava to think back two days before she showed symptoms up until now. Who was she in close contact with (within six feet for at least 15 minutes)? She doesn’t remember much, but she gives us a list of two or three people who may fit the bill.

We call them, find that none of them are sick, none have been out of the state or country, ask them to quarantine and that’s it.

So where did Ava get the virus? Who did she get it from?

We don’t know.

And contact tracing rarely produces an answer to that question.

In fact, that’s not really its point.

Contact tracing is a key strategy for preventing the further spread of an infectious disease. Its goal is to limit spread beyond this point.

We already know Ava has the virus (or is suspected of having it). We’re trying to find out who she may have spread it to – as much as, if not more than – who she got it from.

In the process of doing that we may be able to trace the spread of the virus back to its source before Ava. But probably not.

Why Does Contract Tracing Often Fail to Lead Us Back to the Source of an Outbreak?

If we had rapid and ubiquitous COVID tests, perhaps we could achieve that goal. But we don’t.

Moreover, we’re relying on individuals to voluntarily cooperate with contact tracers and to provide detailed information about who they came into contact with over a wide period.

At best, people are scared and not as specific as they might be. At worst, they refuse to participate at all.

Michael Huff, Pennsylvania’s director of testing and contact tracing efforts, said that more than 34,000 new cases were reported over the past week, but case investigators were only successful in reaching about 8,332.

And of those they did reach, ninety-six people refused to quarantine.

His response:

“Why? Because people don’t want to answer the phone. Because people do not realize how important it is to give the information we need to make certain we can control disease.”

To make matters worse, most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Though they are still capable of spreading the disease, they go undetected by contact tracing entirely.

So it is entirely disingenuous to claim contact tracing proves much of anything about how the virus is spread. It’s usefulness is in stopping COVID-19 from going any further.

How Contact Tracing is Used to Make Wild Claims

Students, teachers and other school staff have come down with the virus in significant numbers.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics released last week.

No such estimate exists for school staff, but about 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And though many thousands of school staff have contracted the disease, more than 300 district employees have died nationwide from the virus according to the Associated Press.

Where did all these people get COVID-19?

Contact tracing provides no definitive answer, however, policymakers are pretending that means something.

They’re pretending that the failure of contact tracing to find a direct link means there is no link.

Since contact tracing has rarely been able to identify the source of an outbreak to a particular person in school, they assume that means the virus isn’t spreading much in our schools.

Nonsense!

First of all, there have been significant contact tracing studies that have found these direct links.

In fact, the largest contact tracing study ever conducted shows that children and young adults are potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified.

The study of more than half a million people conducted by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is much greater than previously believed.

However, many policymakers overlook this evidence as contrary or inconclusive.

They insist that contact tracing’s inability to consistently find the causal link is enough to disregard the existence of that link.

Balderdash!

That’s like sniffing the air and claiming with absolute certainty that there is no leak of carbon monoxide. The gas is odorless and colorless. A sniff test will never tell you if it’s present. You need special equipment.

The fact is Ava has only been to two places in the last two weeks – home and at school.

At home there’s just Ava, her three brothers and her parents.

At school, there are hundreds of students and 8-9 staff she comes into contact with every day.

She is probably in closer contact with the people at home than at school. But the sheer number of people she is in contact with at school multiplied by the number of hours and then days – is tremendous!

The likelihood that Ava caught the virus at school is quite high – no matter how good the precautions being taken.

Taking Advantage of Our Ignorance

It is ludicrous to assume that the lack of a direct causal link after only a few months of schools being open to reduced capacity means much of anything.

Add to that the absence of a standard national database of school cases, and it’s beyond absurd.

States don’t compile COVID cases at schools. The federal government doesn’t either. In fact, no one really does.

A few self-proclaimed experts have tried to put together what data they can – and used that data to make extreme claims.

Economist Emily Oster has used a mere two weeks worth of data in September to argue that the virus isn’t spreading much in schools.

And policymakers have jumped on that bandwagon all across the country including director of the CDC Dr. Robert Redfield.

Oster is now trying to have it both ways – defending her argument but chiding anyone for taking it too seriously.

Her Website incorporates data that school districts publish voluntarily, along with some data reported directly to the site. However, Oster says it’s far from complete, and she was surprised Dr. Redfield was citing it as fact.

She told CNN:

“It is totally bananas. I think we are doing as good a job as we can. This is not my field. It’s crazy.”

She later clarified in a series of Tweets, “…it is bananas that there isn’t a better federal effort to get these data….”

“Our data is, I think, the best available. It’s not perfect, and I’ve said that elsewhere many times…”

Besides the case of COVID-19 in schools, Oster is best known for making outrageous and often disproven claims such as that drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy is safe.

What About When Outbreaks Happen?

But it’s not just Oster who wants to have it both ways.

Policymakers say kids aren’t getting COVID at school and then walk back such claims when outbreaks happen in communities with high levels of infection.

Salt Lake City, Utah, had one of the biggest outbreaks in schools in the nation. However, that happened as infection rates reached more than double the level at which the state recommended distance learning.

“You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community,” said Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine who has advocated for opening schools under strict safety measures.

Which kind of disproves his position.

If COVID doesn’t spread much in schools, the infection rate in the community shouldn’t matter. If it does, then the virus can and does spread significantly in schools.

The situation in Utah has been partly attributed to community resistance to safety precautions like mask wearing and social distancing. When parents won’t take precautions, neither will children.

Keeping Schools Open During a Pandemic Increases Reckless Behavior

However, this highlights another danger of keeping schools open while infections are high.

Even if viral spread was low in schools, keeping buildings open minimizes the danger of the pandemic.

If Ava can see her friends in school, why shouldn’t she get together with them after school, too?

In-person learning enables more in-person extra-curricular activities, sporting events, parties and other social gatherings outside of school.

Under normal circumstances, this would be great. When there’s a raging pandemic – not so much.

With kids, it’s not always what you say. It’s what you do. And if it’s safe enough to have in-person schooling, kids aren’t as likely to social distance outside of school.

Conclusions

The point isn’t that school cannot exist during a pandemic.

In communities where infection rates are low, even in-person classes can be conducted in relative safety with proper precautions and adequate funding.

However, if the community infection rate is moderate to high, classes should be conducted remotely.

We have to take the virus and the risks it poses seriously.

We have not been doing that.

Helen Bristow, MPH, program manager of Duke’s ABC Science Collaborative, which guides schools on COVID-19 safety, cautions:

“We’re nine to 10 months into a brand-new disease. We’re regularly learning something we didn’t know before.”

We have to stop pretending that the partial data we have is enough to make broad and reckless decisions about keeping students and staff safe during this crisis.

Decisions should be made with an abundance of caution.

Protecting life and health have to be the overriding concerns.

We need a national database of COVID cases in schools for students and staff.

We need free, quick and ubiquitous viral screenings done frequently for all students and staff.

And darn if a working and safe vaccine wouldn’t be helpful, too.

But in the absence of all of these things, we should not be rushing to open schools to in-person classes.

The virus definitely is spreading in our schools.

In most communities, it’s not where the contact tracing leads. It’s the sheer number of cases, the quarantines, staffing shortages and, yes, even funerals.

For all its faults, remote learning is far preferable while the virus runs free.


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INCONVENIENT TRUTH: Remote Teaching is Better Than In-Person Instruction During a Pandemic

Hundreds of teachers have died from Covid-19.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with the disease.

Yet a bipartisan group of seven state Governors said in a joint statement Thursday that in-person schools are safe even when community transmission rates are high.

Safe – despite hundreds of preventable deaths of school employees.

Safe – despite mass outbreaks among students.

Safe – despite quarantines, staffing shortages, longterm illnesses and mounting uncertainty about the longterm effects of the disease on children and adults.

State Governors must have a different definition of safety than the rest of us.

The message was signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Delaware Governor John Carney, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

Only Baker is a Republican. The rest are all Democrats.

We expect such blatant untruth from the Trump administration, and Vice-President Mike Pence was quick to add his voice to the septet.

But the facts remain.

More than 300 teachers and other school employees have died across the country from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

In fact, 72 school employees died of the virus in New York City, alone, according to the city Department of Education.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics released Monday.

More than 250,000 people have died nationwide.

More than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease at an ever increasing rate. One million of those cases came about over just six days last week.

In many states like Pennsylvania, hospitalizations have passed their peak in April.

That is not safety.

And it is beyond reckless that these Governors would make such a counterfactual statement.

FACT: It is NOT safe to have in-person schooling in any community where infections are high.

FACT: It is BETTER to have remote education unless the virus has been contained.

But these are inconvenient truths that business leaders, politicians and policymakers are doing everything in their power to ignore.

The Governors’ statement begins:

“Medical research as well as the data from Northeastern states, from across the country, and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates.”

This is just not true.

It is based not on research by epidemiologists, not on studies conducted by doctors, scientists or pharmacologists.

It comes from the work of an economist – Emily Oster.

The Brown University professor analyzed data from all 50 states over a two week period in September and came to the conclusion that when students or teachers get Covid, they rarely catch it at school.

And her analysis has become the Gospel truth for supply-side marketeers all over the country.

However, Oster has been wrong before.

Notoriously wrong.

Oster is infamous for publishing a paper advising women that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is safe. WRONG, says the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. WRONG, says a slew of recent studies from the University of Bristol, Oxford, the British Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

She wrote her dissertation explaining that there were less women in China not because of the one child policy and traditional attitudes toward girl children, but instead because Hepatitis B skewed sex ratios.

And then after that paper made her famous, she published another one proving herself wrong.

Oster is not a serious academic. She is someone who constantly says something controversial to court the media and public opinion.

She is a contrarian, an attention seeker, a celebutante – the economist version of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded movie theater and then sells fire extinguishers to those rushing for the exits.

It is because of people like her that Mark Twain is reported to have remarked, ”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

She was shopping her thesis around about people not catching Covid at school back in May before there was any data one way or another.

Moreover, she homeschools her own children. She has nothing to lose getting us to believe her latest economic whopper.

Since providing this cover story, various county departments of health have claimed that contact tracing rarely indicates students or teachers catch the virus at school. However, these conclusions are based on voluntary anecdotes, not hard data. At the local level, there is often a lot of pressure to find the cause of an outbreak somewhere else when childcare is at stake or administrative coercion involved.

There has, however, been actual science done on the matter that sheds increasing doubt on Oster’s findings and those like her.

A study of more than a half-million people who were exposed to Coronavirus suggests that the virus’ continued spread is driven by only a small percentage of those who become infected.

Moreover, children and young adults were found to be potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified, according to the study by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley.

This was the largest contact tracing study for any disease ever conducted.

It suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is also much greater than previously believed.

The evidence is so convincing that the CDC took down controversial guidance pushing for schools to remain open during periods of increased infections.

This is a lot more important than what some dipshit economist said.

However, the Governors’ statement continues:

“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.”

Talk about overstating the issue!

So kids can’t learn if their instruction is interrupted? It’s a good thing we never take any time off school, say during the summer months.

And way to use poor and special needs kids as props to drum up support. Funny how you never seem to care so much about them when issuing budget priorities or school funding formulas.

But it’s the callousness with which these governors paper over health concerns that really sounds like Oster, herself.

“There are people who would say if even one teacher acquires COVID at a school and dies, then it would not have been worth it to open schools,” Oster said. “I think that argument is complicated because people are going to suffer tremendously from schools being closed, but that is a tricky calculus.”

One would have hoped only an economist would weigh people’s lives vs the cost of health care and boosting standardized test scores. But apparently Democratic Governors feel the same way.

In-person schooling IS preferable to remote instruction if everything else is equal. But everything else is not equal right now.

What kind of mental health issues do children experience whose teachers die suddenly and preventably? How do kids suffer with the loss of a loved one knowing full well that they may have inadvertently been the cause of that person’s death?

What is the longterm cost to children or adults who have their lungs, digestive system or brains suffer irreparable damage as a result of Covid complications?

This disease was only discovered two years ago.

We cannot make bold statements of certainly about its effects without being deeply dishonest. There’s a lot we don’t know about it and how it affects people. And in light of that uncertainty it makes more sense to be extra cautious than reckless.

The fact is remote learning can be done effectively.

We can focus on ensuring that all students have the technology, infrastructure and training to access instruction on-line.

We can prioritize virtual curriculum created by classroom teachers and taught synchronously over video platforms like zoom instead of canned ed tech credit recovery programs like Edmentum.

Administrators and academic coaches can be of more use helping struggling students stay on track than endlessly spinning their wheels about how best to reopen schools.

Bottom line: No one should have to go to school in an unsafe classroom.

Students shouldn’t feel like the only way to get a quality education is to risk their health and put their families in jeopardy.

Teachers shouldn’t be bullied into working in unsafe environments where they or their loved ones may get sick – especially since educators are more susceptible to the virus and often suffer worse consequences of getting ill.

But despite all these arguments, it is the daily reality of schooling during a pandemic that is winning the argument.

Schools simply can’t operate in-person when large segments of the staff are sick and/or quarantined.

No one is buying the argument that in-person schooling is safe when whole kindergarten classes are quarantined as happened at my district this week.

The problem of childcare and other economic hardships are very real. But we will not solve them by closing our eyes to reality and putting our kids and teachers into unsafe classrooms.

It’s high time our government passed a new round of Covid relief. We need to pay people to stay home so they don’t spread the virus. We need mortgage protection, universal healthcare and a host of services to help people weather the storm.

It is embarrassing that so many Governors don’t have the courage to do that and instead indulge in the deranged fantasies of an economic death cult.

It sad that so many Governors lack the courage to issue real Stay-at-Home orders, close schools, bars and restaurants, and issue stiff penalties for those who disobey them.

We do not need in-person learning while Covid runs wild.

Until the danger has passed, we need quality remote learning conducted, planned and supported by educators.

And we need Governors with the guts to listen to science, not B.S. economists.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!