Across much of the US, schools have been reopening this week. It’s going about as well as you’d expect.
Elwood Junior Senior High School in Central Indiana started school on Thursday, July 30. They were closed by Monday after several staff tested positive for covid-19. The Superintendent explained that the district had seen, “more positive cases from staff members than we anticipated.” He didn’t explain how many cases the district’s brain trust expected, but apparently results were just a smidge over their threshold. Not to be deterred, they plan to reopen the schools in a week, because they haven’t killed anyone yet.
Intrepid leaders in Greenfield, Indiana are made of tougher stuff. When they had a student test positive on Day 1, they just kept going.
Indiana is barely a week into their reopening plan and it’s becoming a challenge to keep up with all the schools experiencing outbreaks. It’s developing into a running column in the Indianapolis Star. Cases are popping up everywhere schools are reopening, from North Carolina to Mississippi. And North Carolina reported its first death from a recent outbreak in daycare facilities.
Our debate over school reopening has something for everyone, offering a taste of just about every dysfunction crippling the former leader of the free world. Entitled white suburbanites are holding forth at school board meetings and online, “actually-ing” their uninformed counter-opinions on virus safety. Right wing nuts are spreading ever more bizarre conspiracy theories. Karen insists on speaking to the manager. Nice, polite white folk desperate to get their kids out of the house are granting teachers a cursory salute and the cannon-fodder title, “heroes,” as they march them off to face their looming ICU lottery.
The same people who spend the rest of the week shrieking about their “pro-life” values dismiss the obvious dangers of this pandemic to suit their politics and their personal convenience. Welcome to America, leading the world in covid-19 havoc.
Other countries have demonstrated that school reopening during the pandemic is possible. They’ve also demonstrated the conditions that determine the success or failure of those plans, conditions we have not met.
After a slow start, waiting for the leader of the free world to actually lead, Germany implemented the standard pandemic playbook on their own. Germany has an aggressive, national testing and tracing system, supplemented by 400 contact tracing call centers. Everyone who has come in contact with an infected person is placed on mandatory quarantine. The Germans are following the playbook we wrote and failed to implement.
Germany has been experimenting with in-person schooling in pilots over the summer and has begun a full-reopening, rolling across the country over the coming weeks. The first week has been very successful, not because of outstanding individual district plans, but because the national government has performed exceptionally well in coping with the pandemic. The entire nation of Germany, with 80 million people, had fewer than 600 new covid-19 cases yesterday, half the number of new cases in Wisconsin or Mississippi. With such low infection rates, containment measures in schools have a solid chance of success.
Israel wasn’t so lucky. The country had been a standout in pandemic response until it was time to reopen schools. Administrators’ original plans which would have limited in-person schooling to the youngest, least vulnerable age cohort were derailed by powerful religious extremists who insisted on a more ambitious program. That program failed immediately. An outbreak at a Jerusalem high school quickly mushroomed, joining other outbreaks. Within a few weeks much of the system had shut back down.
Back in May, when schools opened, Israel was experiencing fewer than 10 new cases a day. Daily new cases are well over 1000 now. Despite the failure of the earlier efforts and an out of control spread in the general population, Israel still plans to plough ahead with a new reopening plan in September.
How dangerous is this virus? That remains unclear. If the fatality rate is determined by comparing the number of “recovered” to the number of deceased, then you get a figure hovering around 5%. That figure rises significantly for those contracting the disease during a surge, when healthcare resources are strained. In Italy the death rate was near 15%. It can dip much lower for those lucky enough to contract the disease when there are few other local cases. In Hong Kong, for example, the death rate just a little under 2%.
Death rates for the disease are much higher for those over 50. Children under 10 rarely die from the virus and are most likely to be asymptomatic. It appears that young children may be marginally less likely to be contagious, though this remains unclear. And “marginally less likely” only helps so much when you’re locked in a room with 20 of them all day long.
Perhaps more worrying than the death rate for this disease is its potentially chronic implications. Covid-19 is not the flu. After respiratory symptoms pass and a patient ceases to be contagious, it appears that chronic symptoms often set in. Long-term damage can occur even in mild cases, and even among the very healthy, like professional athletes. We don’t know why this happens, how widespread chronic outcomes may be, or what these conditions might mean for children over the long term.
A German study found that more than 75% of covid-19 patients suffered persistent organ damage, including possible heart conditions. This included patients who had experienced mild infections. As this crisis expands we’re seeing patients who originally showed little symptom of illness reporting long-term chronic disease of the character of immune disorders like Lupus. This includes children, some of whom are displaying the immune disorder, Kawasaki Disease and toxic shock syndrome. These illnesses can deliver permanent cardiac damage. We don’t know why this is happening or how to treat it. Covid-19 is not a mild, seasonal illness.
Those who advocate allowing the disease to simply run its course, building up “herd immunity,” are making a lot of assumptions while yada-yada-ing their way over a pile of corpses. Real herd immunity is almost impossible without a vaccine. Even diseases like measles and chicken pox, for which our bodies develop long-term immunities, were not controlled until a vaccine was available. Coronavirus infections are notorious for resulting in only fleeting immunity, more similar to seasonal illnesses like the common cold. Those advocating that we simply soldier on are generally either lazy, ignorant, or confident that they won’t be the ones dying for their convenience.
Some argue that in-person school reopening should begin at least for younger children because of their reduced vulnerability. This ignores the worrying chronic implications of a covid-19 infection, implications we do not understand and cannot yet treat. More pointedly though it simply writes off the health and lives of teachers and their families.
An in-person school setting is nothing at all like working at Walmart or even caring for patients in a healthcare setting. Hardly any environment outside prisons or nursing homes involves more sustained, enclosed, close-exposure over longer periods than school. And the teachers’ lives will depend on the capacity of small children to maintain protocols for containing pathogens that are challenging for health care professionals.
How important is school opening? Very important. School closures have been one of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic for families and the one most likely to have painful long-term repercussions for children. We can never replace lost time. There’s little question that remote learning, even as schools develop better techniques, is a pale shadow of a conventional school day. What is lost from weaker education during this period probably can’t be made up.
Worse, schools are our only uniform, nation-wide system of free childcare, a lifeline of nurturing for children and material support for struggling families. Of America’s roughly 50 million public school students, well over half depend on a free or reduced price lunch for their nutrition. Almost half of American children live in low-income families and one in five live below the poverty line. As the social safety net has evaporated, the burden of child poverty has fallen to schools.
One might expect those families to demand school reopening. That’s not what’s happening. Like everything else in America, the debate over reopening breaks across party lines, which is another way of saying that opinion is divided by race. Republicans, who are almost exclusively white, heavily favor a damn-the-torpedoes reopening program while Democrats who are far more diverse and more likely to depend on schools for a lifeline, overwhelming oppose in-person reopening.
Families with far less material need for in-person schooling are the ones pressing hardest for premature school reopening, a position which makes no sense if you know nothing about America.
Time lost to a pandemic cannot be made up. Economic damage from families unable to find child care or missing the critical supports of the public education system will be staggering. These are not reasons to disregard the health of students or the lives of teachers and their families. No, we can’t buy back time, but we also can’t raise the dead.
Damage we are seeing from closed or remote schools are not a reason to ignore this crisis. They are a reason for us to insist that our national government build a real plan to contain the virus. No other major democracy is facing the death toll and sustained spread of this virus that is playing out across America. Like our gun crisis, our health care crisis, and our failure to address climate change, this pandemic is one more area in which our civic incompetence stands out from the wider world.
What we need to make school reopening possible is the same thing we needed from the beginning of this outbreak; the same thing other countries have done to manage the crisis successfully: An aggressive national program of testing and contact tracing, paired with national steps aimed at mitigating the spread. Failure of our national authorities to perform these simple tasks explains why America leads the world in death and mayhem from this disease.
No plans adopted by a local school district can fill the void left by a failed national response. We aren’t going to have in-person school without uncontrolled virus outbreaks until our federal government rises to this challenge. Until we have a competent federal response to this pandemic, our efforts to get kids back in school are just pissing in the wind.
Even after a vaccine is available, assuming a vaccine is available, these same test/trace steps will still be necessary to eradicate the virus, just as they were necessary in prior campaigns against polio and measles. Until we tackle the difficult parts of this challenge, we can’t have a cookie. Merely issuing our demands more loudly and insisting on speaking to the manager will not make this pandemic disappear.
Trying to send students back to school during an uncontrolled pandemic is childish narcissism. School reopening will last, at most, a few weeks before erupting into yet another embarrassing debacle. Along the way it will kill a lot of educators too financially strapped to risk their jobs by staying home.
Ignoring science and reality because we find them inconvenient is what makes America exceptional in all the worst ways. In America, my ignorance deserves just as much respect as your expertise. My convenience is more important than your survival, as long as I’m white. Having children makes me an education expert. I deserve every benefit of a highly functioning society of responsible citizens while displaying all the civic awareness of a disgruntled customer holding up the line at Starbucks. And anyone who criticizes these toxic values is being “uncivil.”
Whatever education kids pick up in their brief return to in-person school will be overshadowed by what they’re learning about us, a lesson that will damn us in their eyes forever.