COVID-19 and the Classroom
“You can’t be pro-life and advocate kids going back to school in a pandemic.” Don Winslow, Twitter
Across America, the debate has begun: can we send our children back to school in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? The answer should be crystal clear to all of us.
While there are numerous factors to consider in this debate, the overarching question remains the same: What protections can schools provide today that they could not provide in the Spring of 2020 when schools were closed?
The Rules of Prevention against COVID-19 are simple yet effective:
- wear a mask in public
- keep a safe distance from each other
- wash hands thoroughly for 20 seconds
These are the same protections we had available to us in the Spring when the outbreak began. Positive case numbers were increasing then, but now those numbers are just as bad, if not worse, than they were at the time when we closed schools.
There are two systems used to fight COVID-19 in the environment: prevention and testing.
- Prevention. Masks, social distancing, and hand-washing are used to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. In areas where these rules of prevention have been followed diligently, positive case numbers have declined: in those areas where these rules have not been followed with diligence, case numbers have grown — now greater than in the Spring. Without the use of these prevention devices, COVID-19 infections will continue to rise.
- Testing. Testing has proven to be troublesome throughout the nation: while the efficacy of the tests has improved, the wait lines for both testing and test results are unacceptable. Wait lines in some areas are in the hours, while the turn-around time for test results is between 7–10 days.
The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has now topped 3 million; the number of positive cases is on the rise in more than half of the states, including Pennsylvania. Yesterday, July 7th, over 58,000 new positive cases were identified across the United States. Pennsylvania, while initially reducing the positive cases since Spring, is currently seeing an increase in positives (nearly 1,000 cases July 7).
The reasons behind the increase in positive cases are many: no state followed the CDC guidelines for re-opening; there is no national testing plan; there is no national call to follow the rules of prevention, including wearing masks in public; there is no national tracing plan or action. To add to our growing numbers of positive cases, the U.S. announced a withdrawal from the World Health Organization. The truth is the United States has the worst COVID-19 outbreak of any First-World nation.
Until a vaccine is developed and the population is thoroughly inoculated, the only measures we have are prevention and testing; unfortunately, neither are being employed effectively to produce satisfactory results.
The Rules of Prevention require that people wear masks in public, use proper social distancing, and wash their hands thoroughly.
Can we expect that school children will follow these rules?
Currently, hospitals in Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, and Florida are exhausting their supply of PPE: this is due to the rapid increase in positive cases, due primarily to people not following the Rules of Prevention while in public.
Children can be taught to wear masks, but having the expectation that children will wear masks all day in school is as unrealistic as it is to expect the general population to wear masks in public: it simply is not a reality we should expect.
Social distancing will be the larger problem in schools. Educators remind us of the negative impact a lack of social interaction will have on children, some even suggesting that the loss of social contact will be greater than the impact of a child actually contracting COVID-19. But it can not be expected that children will follow 6 foot social distancing rules: children will not social distance, by default. While there should be ample concern for the negative impact of social isolation on our children, justifying a return to school when children can not be expected to follow social distancing guidelines is unreasonable.
We must recognize the reality that children will simply ignore social distancing rules; as thousands of adults have already demonstrated, a failure to follow these social distancing guidelines will lead directly to virus outbreaks.
Why should we expect our children to follow the Rules of Prevention any better than adults have?
The rise of positive cases of COVID-19 is directly connected to adults failing to follow the simple Rules of Prevention. If we subject our children to the school environment, the number of positive cases will be increased due to the high probability of a failure to follow these rules adequately.
Our failure as a society to enforce the Rules of Prevention has led to the staggering numbers of coronavirus cases we have as a nation. Requiring children to go back to schools — where the same Rules of Prevention can not be enforced any better than in our general society — suggests that children will actually behave better than the adult population has during this crisis. That children will act better than the adults in our society is not only an unreasonable expectation, it is unethical.
Exposing our children to any environment without strict adherence to these Rules of Prevention — which the United States as a whole has failed to apply— will simply expose them to COVID-19.
Testing is a problem in and of itself. While the tests themselves have improved in accuracy, the manner in which we do testing in the general public has not improved.
Currently, if one is employed in the Federal government, working in close proximity to government leaders, testing is done with all haste: anyone who needs access to the president must be tested, and the results are provided immediately. This is necessary to ensure the government can continue to operate and the president can be informed promptly on national security issues. This same type of ‘speedy testing’ is also available to celebrities, athletes, and others who need to be tested and get immediate results.
The general public is not tested using ‘speedy testing,’ and our school children will not be tested in this manner.
Children will be subject to testing in the manner others in the general public are using: a swab test is conducted, followed by a wait of 7–10 days for results. Currently, many labs throughout the nation are experiencing shortages of test materials leading to the longer turn-around time of tests. Currently, the United States conducts less than one million tests each day.
Consider the impact of children returning to school on the testing environment: there are over 55 million school children who attend public schools in the United States. Add to that staff and other personnel and you can expect 60 million additional people to need recurring testing.
How will this large number of tests for schools impact a laboratory’s ability to process all tests?
What will be the wait time for results of tests we employ for school children?
How will testing 60 million additional people affect those requiring testing in order to work?
Will we simply test children and require them to quarantine until the test results are returned? Or will we test the children and then send them to school, not knowing the results until 10–20 days in the future?
Knowing the facts about our failures concerning the Rules of Prevention, are we willing to send children into the school environment without first receiving test results?
Are we asking our children to attend public schools without knowing the results of their COVID-19 tests, risking their health while potentially creating infectious hotspots?
Until adequate ‘speedy testing’ is available for all public school students, it is unconscionable to ask students to attend public schools: we must be able to identify those students with COVID-19, test anyone who has had contact with them, and quarantine them for the minimum 14 days, permitting them to return to school only after successfully clearing testing.
Currently, no public school has the ability to conduct this ‘speedy testing.’ The slow turn-around of traditional general public testing coupled by the enormous burden placed on laboratories producing test results combine to suggest that testing using current methodology will fail to prevent school outbreaks.
None of this addresses the stigma attached to a positive test: children are susceptible to scorn and ridicule from fellow students, and a positive test could result in physical, mental, or emotional attacks on students who are identified with a positive test. This stigma can last an entire school-lifetime, creating deep psychological damage to the child.
None of this addresses the costs of what each school must spend to achieve these two objectives — Prevention and Testing. There are untold numbers of schools in poor school districts where purchasing the masks, hand sanitizer, and other materials necessary to create safe social distancing are beyond their financial capabilities. Testing costs are no different; what follows is that states will be saddled with the new costs of providing PPE and testing for 60 million school students and staff — a number that will break many already overburdened state budgets.
The question at hand then is this: what has changed in our school environments from April 1st to September 1st?
Pennsylvania schools closed in the Spring due to the rising cases of coronavirus and our inability to treat those infected.
While some therapeutics have helped reduce recovery time, they have not reduced the spread of the virus itself.
While we know that the Rules of Prevention greatly reduce the spread of infection, we continue to see a rise in cases due to our general failure as a society to follow these simple rules. Expecting children to follow those same Rules of Prevention better than the general public is unreasonable.
Are we expecting our children to follow rules adults won’t follow?
We know that testing can identify those infected, but we have also learned that nearly half of those infected spread the virus to others (pre-symptomatic) before they show any symptoms, and that our continued failure to employ the Rules of Prevention will continue to permit the spread of the virus.
While we know that masks greatly reduce the spread of the virus, and that hand-washing also works, do we have adequate quantities of these devices to provide for all of our children and school staff each day while not negatively impacting those who require these devices for the performance of their jobs (medical, food prep, essential workers)?
What are schools — and state governments — prepared to do about those parents who believe their child should not be required to wear a mask, or take a test?
Have we simply forgotten the primary purpose of schools? While social interaction is an important side-effect of school, the primary purpose of education is to teach our children how to think. Learning how to use their brains can be achieved both in-school and on-line, albeit the digital classroom must mature to overcome numerous challenges.
Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos may be suffering from onset dementia: have they so quickly forgotten about ‘shooter drills,’ that necessary evil now required of all school students due to the unrelenting madness of school shootings? How can ‘shooter drills’ be conducted using social distancing — not to mention gym class, busing, and lunch?
As stated at the outset, the answer is crystal clear: Pennsylvania — in fact, no state — should subject their children to school environments during the coronavirus crisis. The failure to properly use the Rules of Prevention, coupled with the crippling impacts of a massive testing effort provide a clear answer to our query: NO.
The risk to the health of everyone in the school environment would be in grave danger were schools open in the Fall.
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©Timothy J. Sabo