Safety is in the eye of the beholder.
No matter what you do, life involves some risk.
The question is whether certain actions or courses of action involve acceptable risk and exactly what you consider to be acceptable.
These issues are not academic. School directors across the country are juggling such questions in their reopening plans.
With federal and state officials largely leaving the decision up to local elected school boards of how to hold classes in August and September, people used to choosing between bids for text books and whether to renovate the gymnasium are forced to make life and death decisions for hundreds or thousands of students, staff and their families.
There are three main options:
- (1) Open schools completely to in-person learning with safety precautions
- (2) Keep classes entirely on-line as they were in April and May
- (3) Offer some kind of hybrid of the two
Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.
This means reopening to in-person classes part of the time and on-line learning for the rest.
There are many ways to do this.
In my home district of McKeesport, this means having half of the students attend in the morning and the other half in the afternoon with the balance of their class work being done via the Internet.
In Steel Valley, the district where I work as a middle school teacher, this means half of the students attending full days on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays and the building is deep cleaned while students are taught completely on-line on Wednesdays.
In either case, parents can opt-in to an entirely virtual plan, but it’s expected that most adults would choose the hybrid model with its partial in-person classes for their children.
Let me be clear – the hybrid plan is preferable to the completely in-person proposal.
It reduces exposure to other people and environments compared to the entirely in-person program.
For instance, being in class half the day reduces student exposure by half. Being in class two out of five days reduces it by 60%.
However, let’s be real.
Any in-person instruction during a global pandemic incurs some risk. And that risk is far from negligible.
Moreover, the amount of risk is greater for adults than it is for children – both because adults would experience much higher exposure under such systems and because COVID-19 seems to affect adults more severely than children.
The hybrid model, then, is tantamount to putting children, teachers and families at risk for a reduced amount of time.
Why take the risk? On the premise that in-person instruction is more robust than on-line learning. Students learn more in the classroom from educators who are physically present than they do on the Internet.
There is significant evidence to back that up. However, this premise ignores the fact that invasive but necessary safety measures like wearing masks and practicing social distancing throughout the day will inevitably have negative effects on learning.
In short, mask-to-mask learning will not be as productive as face-to-face learning. We are in uncharted territory. It is entirely up in the air whether the necessary safety precautions of in-person learning – even during a hybrid model – will be better or worse than distance learning.
So the hybrid model tries to balance the unproven and questionable promise of increased academics against the threat of increased danger of disease.
How much danger? Well that depends to a large degree on where you live and the rate of infection present there.
I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.
When schools closed in Allegheny County last academic year, a handful of people got sick each day, a hundred or more a week. For instance, 23 new COVID-19 cases were reported on March 19, and 133 for the week.
Now there are hundreds of new cases in the county every day and a thousand a week – 198 on July 24, alone, and 1,363 for the week.
That is not an insignificant risk. We have an infection rate of nearly 10%. We have some of the highest numbers in the state.
I don’t know how anyone can look at those numbers and conclude anything except that the risk of infection is GREATER today than it was when we took more precautions against it.
Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.
Not a single state has met guidelines for reopening schools issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in May.
Moving into Phase 1 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.” Moving to Phase 2 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases for at least 14 days after entering Phase 1.”
No state has experienced a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases for 28 straight days. In most states, cases are increasing.
Nor does any reopening plan that I have seen – including McKeesport’s and Steel Valley’s – follow the 69-page CDC guidelines published by The New York Times earlier this month, marked “For Internal Use Only,” which was intended for federal public health response teams as they are deployed to hot spots around the country.
That document suggested several expensive and difficult safety measures such as broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher – none of which is being done locally.
The issue gets complicated though because this month the CDC bowed to pressure from the Trump administration and publicly softened its tone about reopening.
However, no matter how you look at it, reopening school buildings – even with a hybrid approach – increases risk significantly.
If school buildings are reopened with students and staff coming and going – even at a reduced rate through a hybrid plan – one would expect the virus already present in the community to gain access to our schools where it would be further spread to different segments of the community.
Schools are great meeting points. They are where local neighborhoods connect, learn, grow and share. Reopening them in a physical fashion allows for greater sharing of any easily communicable diseases in the area.
So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?
It’s often compared to influenza which infects millions of people every year yet these outbreaks rarely close schools.
Unfortunately, the consequences of getting COVID-19 are much more severe. So far the Coronavirus has shown itself to be 52 times as deadly as the flu.
Only about 0.1 percent of the people who got the flu in the US last year died of it, according to the CDC. Yet about 5.2 percent of those who came down with COVID-19 have died, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths.
During the 2018-19 flu season, about 34,000 people in the US died, according to the CDC. So far, 143,193 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, as of July 23.
And keep in mind there is a vaccine for the flu. There is nothing as yet that fights COVID-19.
Some say that even given such statistics, children are less susceptible than adults.
However, the virus was only discovered in 2019. So little is known about it – for instance, the low percentage of cases in children may be because schools were closed in April and May before many kids were exposed to it.
A recent South Korean study – the most in depth of its kind to examine how the virus affects children – found that it is especially active in older kids.
“For people who lived with parents between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% tested positive for the virus within about 10 days after the initial case was detected — the highest rate of transmission among the groups studied. Children younger than 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen,” wrote Stephen Stapczynski for Bloomberg News.
Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.
“So long as children are not just a complete dead end – incapable of passing the virus on, which does not seem to be the case – putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said.
Do such facts represent an acceptable risk for opening schools – even with a hybrid model?
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.
She said, “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”
However, if even .02% of public school students were likely to die if school buildings were reopened, that’s 11,320 children!
Are we willing to risk the lives of tens of thousands – perhaps more – children on the unproven promise of a slight improvement in academics?
And keep in mind that doesn’t even take into account the cost to adults.
According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 1 in 4 teachers in the U.S. – roughly 1.5 million people – are at increased risk for complications if they become infected with the Coronavirus. This includes educators over the age of 65 and those – like myself – with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more vulnerable.
According to the CDC, death from COVID-19 is significantly more common in older adults. Though the median age of U.S. teachers is 42.4 years, nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.
Health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease also increase one’s risk for serious illness from the virus. The CDC warns that roughly 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, and about 40 percent have two or more.
The situation is even more dire when we look at parents and grandparents in students’ homes. The KFF issued a report in July concluding that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.
And let’s not forget the racial component.
Most minorities are more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the higher rates of social inequality they are forced to live under.
According to the CDC, Native Americans and Black people are hospitalized from the Coronavirus five times more often than White people. Hispanic and Latino people are hospitalized four times more often than White people.
Physically reopening school buildings in communities that serve large populations of people of color, then, invites greater risk than in predominantly white communities.
In any case, though, reopening school buildings – even under a hybrid model – significantly increases the risk for all the people living there.
So in summary, it is clear that the three basic options for reopening schools each offer different levels of risk.
A full reopening of schools even with safety precautions brings the highest risk. However, the hybrid model also brings significant danger to students, teachers and families – even if somewhat less than full reopening.
Distance learning has the lowest risk of all. It keeps most children physically separate from each other and thus limits exposure to the virus to the greatest extent. Likewise, it limits jeopardy for educators and other adults because teachers would mostly come into contact with children through the internet and parents would not be further complicated through potential viral contacts of their children.
From an academic standpoint, distance learning certainly has its drawbacks compared with face-to-face learning. But compared with mask-to-mask learning, virtual instruction may actually be preferable.
In any case, increased risk of death or debilitating disease has a chilling effect on learning for all involved.
In most communities – perhaps all – a decision on school reopening that balances safety with academics would lean toward distance learning above anything else.
Even if on-line learning turns out to be less effective than that provided in the hybrid model, any deficiencies can be targeted and ameliorated once the pandemic ends.
As yet, death admits of no such remedies.
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