As school districts across Colorado grapple with how to re-open amid an ongoing global pandemic, the state’s largest teachers union insists that any decision to return to in-person learning needs to be driven by “scientific standards” and not politics.
The Colorado Education Association, which represents nearly 40,000 educators in the state, says that unless protections against the still-burgeoning coronavirus can be better assured across Colorado’s 178 school districts, teachers may not return to classrooms next month.
Yet much of the science on school safety across the globe indicates that the novel coronavirus, which has taken the lives of nearly 650,000 people worldwide but has largely spared the young, doesn’t do well in a classroom setting.
Research papers published in multiple countries, including Australia, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany, found negligible transmission of COVID-19 in school settings.
Last week, a leading U.K. epidemiologist told The Times of London that no recorded case exists of a teacher catching the coronavirus from a pupil “anywhere in the world” and that it may have been a mistake to close schools in March “given the limited role children play in spreading the virus.”
And in a study cited by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment epidemiologist Dr. Brian Erly last week during a virtual news conference on reopening schools, researchers found virtually no difference in the transmission rate among students and teachers in Finland, which closed its schools during the peak of the pandemic in Europe, compared to Sweden, which kept primary schools open.
“Keeping primary schools open didn’t place the children at a higher risk of infection,” Erly said on the call. “So I think this is an important example for us to look at as we consider our school opening guidance in Colorado.”
But not all the science points in the same direction. A large study out of South Korea published earlier this month indicates that children 10 and older can transmit the coronavirus as easily as adults. And a Chinese study published in June concluded that school closures there helped slow the spread of COVID-19.
Schools in Israel, South Korea and China have had to close again after surges in coronavirus occurred in those countries.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said “contradictory studies and data” make it hard to find consensus on what the science is saying about the coronavirus in schools.
“Everyone’s biggest priority is to get to in-person learning,” she said. “But there is also tremendous damage that can be done if we put educators and students in an unhealthy and unsafe environment. We don’t want to experiment on our children — and that’s what it feels it would be.”
Meanwhile, pressure to resume classroom instruction is coming from doctors. The American Academy of Pediatrics last month issued reopening guidelines in which it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
Dr. Sam Dominguez, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, told The Denver Post that remote learning is not equivalent to hands-on instruction in a classroom.
“Schools are important for education, but they also provide mental health services, screening for at-risk children, food services and they address larger social inequity issues,” Dominguez said. “I think the ability to open schools relies on two factors: the mitigation measures that are put in place and the circulation numbers of the virus.”
Determining how safe is safe enough is the real challenge, he said.
“Nothing in life is without risk,” Dominguez said. “So we can never get to zero.”
“My colleagues are terrified”
The re-opening of schools in the United States has become a hot-button issue, with President Donald Trump earlier this month threatening to withhold federal aid to schools that don’t open while teachers in Florida sued the state’s Republican governor over his directive that schools open for the 2020-2021 academic year.
Just last Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new school-opening guidance titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.” The agency said “reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being and future of one of America’s greatest assets — our children — while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all their families.”
All of this is happening against the backdrop of a worrisome increase in the coronavirus infection rate in the United States, as people newly intermingle — often without masks or social distancing — after lengthy lockdowns. Since the middle of July, daily new cases have repeatedly eclipsed a record-breaking 70,000-plus in the U.S.
In Colorado, the trends are going the wrong way, too, with daily caseloads regularly exceeding 500 — numbers not seen since late April and early May. Even though COVID-19 is a disease that overwhelmingly targets older populations — only three people under the age of 20 have died in Colorado from the virus out of more than 1,600 total deaths — teachers in the state are worried about providing the coronavirus a new venue in which to propagate and possibly infect parents, grandparents or medically vulnerable relatives at home.
“There is a need to get the spread under control,” Baca-Oehlert said.
A survey recently conducted by the Colorado Education Association of its members revealed that 53% want to start the school year fully remote while only 8% want to start fully in person. Fewer than 20% of respondents believe districts can keep them safe.
Meanwhile, guidelines for revving up the school year released by state education and public health officials last week lack specifics and largely leave decisions about start dates and reopening approaches to local school boards, Baca-Oehlert said. For example, the state guidance stresses the importance of forming “cohorts,” or groups of students who stay together through the day to limit their exposure to others. But state officials don’t say what they think the ideal number of students is in a cohort.
“We want to have specific details of how those safety protocols are implemented,” she said. “That’s what we’re calling on the state to provide — what’s the trigger to go to in-person learning?”
The uncertainty has led to Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jefferson County — announcing that they will start exclusively with virtual learning for at least the first two weeks of the new academic year. Jeffco’s decision followed a #RECALLtheRestart social media campaign that had gathered 50,000 signatures as of last week urging district administrators to delay in-person plans.
“I truly understand and recognize the need for in-person instruction,” Ernest Garibay, a math teacher at Standley Lake High School in Westminster, said during an online union-hosted news conference last week. “I also believe that policymakers need to pause and re-evaluate the safest way to do this.
“I have much more concern about the real health risks that COVID presents to our students and school community than I have about an arbitrary start date that is not informed by our current scientific understanding of the global pandemic we’re living through.”
John Robinson, president of the Poudre Education Association in Fort Collins, was more blunt on the call.
“To be honest, my colleagues are terrified,” he said.
With the threat of pandemic-induced funding cuts to public education in Colorado — $14 million alone in the Poudre School District, the 20-year veteran teacher said — and an ongoing teacher shortage in the state, trying to put in place health measures that reduce class sizes and increase cleaning capacity in schools would be a tall order.
“It’s an impossibility at this point when we’re looking to open buildings in two to three weeks to come up with the number of certified, qualified educators that we would need to make a cohort happen,” Robinson said.
Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, casts the dilemma over how to launch the upcoming school year as a “hard science versus social science” conundrum. Even if the scientific data doesn’t justify the level of fear in the community about COVID-19 spread in schools, the fear is still real.
“It doesn’t really matter what the science says if half of your staff is fearful of it and half your parents are fearful of it,” Miles said. “Outside of the science, principals have to have enough people to run the building.”
“This can be done safely”
The debate over school starts has moved beyond the teacher corps and into the social media world, with parents hotly discussing whether or not their children should venture back into school buildings that were shuttered four months ago. Greg Nidy, a father of two children attending Secrest Elementary in Arvada, adheres to the precautionary principle in choosing remote learning for his kids.
“We have yet to see a slowdown in the spread of the disease in the U.S.,” Nidy said. “Nothing has changed since March — there is no greater understanding of virus mitigation. It’s dangerous to ask children to go into that unproven environment.”
Ben Wood, also a father in Arvada, takes the opposite position. His three kids go to Jeffco schools and trying to have them attend class at home “is a massive strain on parents.”
“I cannot imagine what it would be like for a single mother or father who has to do that and go to work,” Wood said. “Do we want to foster a culture of fear or do we want to proceed with cautious optimism?”
Wood worries that at-home schooling, sans the guidance, resources and services that public schools provide, will chip away at the development and aptitude of the youngest generation — a prospect The New York Times in June described as “not pretty.”
New research, the newspaper reported, suggests that by September most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had gone to class, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains. Gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines will likely worsen because of disparities in access to web-connected technology and direct teacher instruction.
That bothers Rusha Lev, a pediatrician and mother of four who serves as a member of the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The risks of not being in school are significant and paramount,” she said. “There is going to be a huge differential in online learning.”
Lev has patients who are homeless, with several children in a family packed into a hotel room trying to share a single tablet to do homework. Or immigrant families with parents whose first language is not English, trying to balance low-wage jobs with teaching their children subjects they know little about. Or simply leaving their kids at home while they go to work.
“These are some of the reasons we feel they should be in school,” she said.
In-person instruction can be done if proper mitigation measures are taken, like wearing a mask, keeping a distance and frequent hand washing, Lev said. She cites her own work examining babies who spit up on her daily as a risk-filled situation she has been able to manage without getting ill.
Lev said the preponderance of the scientific data from around the world points to the fact that the coronavirus is simply not as virulent and far less deadly among children in school settings.
And that’s more compelling for her than fear and speculation about the unknown.
“There is more than just hypothesis here — there is data to suggest this setting is not as worrisome as we once thought,” she said. “Despite people’s fear, which is reasonable, in most cases this can be done safely.”
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