This school year has been extremely difficult for parents everywhere. Whether your child has been going to school virtually, going to school in-person, or if you’ve made alternative arrangements for your kid such as homeschooling or “pod schooling,” it’s been a stressful experience all around. Or to put it another way, a total and complete shitshow.
As the wife of a teacher and mom of two kids who have struggled with virtual learning at times, I have been hyper focused on all the issues at hand. My kids have asthma and we decided to keep them home this year. They are doing well, all things considered, but I know that they would be happier in many ways if they were in school.
As such, I read every article, every piece of data. My kids’ school district is doing a hybrid approach, with both in-person and virtual options, and I scrutinize each COVID positive email we get. Sometimes there are ten COVID positive cases in one day and I wonder if these cases are being transmitted in school or outside school. With no vaccine for kids in sight for some time, I want to know for sure if sending my kids back eventually will be safe. I worry about whether I’ve made the best decision for my kids, and I wonder when the hell the school will look normal again.
And the conclusion I’ve come to is this: no one freaking knows. Why? Because there is very little data when it comes to what is happening in schools. My own school district only sends us data with COVID positive cases (that is, the ones that have been reported), not information about contract tracing. Are the kids and teachers getting COVID in the classroom despite masks and distancing? Are people even fully complying with contact tracing so that we can get a good picture of how the virus is spreading? None of us have any clue.
What about school districts around the country? As The New York Times points out, school districts around the country are taking wildly different approaches to COVID safety, with some requiring masks and distancing, and others not. No school district is testing their kids regularly, and even school districts that are (like NYC, for example) are only testing a small sample of students, not entire schools, and not on a regular basis (NYC tests 20% of school populations once per month).
How can you know what is happening in a school when you are not regularly testing all students and staff? Remember, about 40% of kids who test positive for COVID have no symptoms. How many cases of COVID spread in schools might we be missing simply because we aren’t testing enough??
So when the CDC released recommendations today saying that schools should consider reopening where safety measures could be taken, I had questions.
As The Washington Post wrote, the CDC’s statement includes language pointing out that transmission in schools is lower than in other congregate settings such as nursing homes. “The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” the CDC wrote in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
I am definitely happy to see that the CDC, under President Biden, is focused on getting kids back to school safely, and wants to give schools funding to do so (it remains to be seen what that funding will be and how it will be allocated). But that idea that schools can be made safe in the middle of a global pandemic where thousands of people are dying a day made me scratch my head.
And why are we comparing in-school transmission to other places where COVID spreads faster? Is this a race? Can we just say that we don’t want COVID to spread freaking anywhere until this pandemic is under control?
As The Washington Post points out, the CDC also published a recent study which looked specifically at in-school transmission at a schools in Wisconsin that took proper precautions when it came to masking.
“A new CDC study, also published Tuesday, looked at 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin and found just seven out of 191 coronavirus cases resulted from in-school transmission,” explained The Washington Post. “Researchers noted that students and staff in these schools wore masks almost all the time.”
Margaret Honein, who was the lead author of the JAMA report, explained the conclusions of that report to The Washington Post. “[W]ith proper prevention efforts … we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,” she commented. “We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year but the data has really accumulated.”
Okay, so this CDC report found that in schools with good masking protocols, 7 people got infected with COVID while in school? And that’s supposed to be a “good” scenario? Everyone has their own threshold for this stuff, but in my opinion, even one person getting sick with COVID while going to school is one person too many.
What about older teachers? What about bus drivers? What about that one kid who brings COVID home to their grandmother and kills her? Maybe COVID risk is smaller in a well protected, well ventilated school than in a restaurant, but why should we have anything open right now that doesn’t absolutely need to be? You know, when literally thousands of people are dying of COVID a day?
I feel especially concerned about all of this when a vaccine is out and teachers and staff have just started to get vaccinated. Why are we talking about reopening schools when we are on the brink of protecting our precious teachers and staff members? Let them get their vaccines first. Their safety matters.
Let’s not forget that the idea of properly protecting our teachers and staff with PPE and proper ventilation is not that simple in poorer school districts and districts in large cities. Many of these school districts don’t have the money for textbooks, let alone face masks.
Where is all this money going to come from, and how can we be sure it will be adequate? When my husband worked at an NYC school, he worked in a room with literally no windows and 30 kids practically sitting on top of each other. This was not uncommon. Do people understand the state of our broken education system?
Yes, ideally we would have all our kids in school. There are legitimately kids who need to be in school right now—kids of essential workers, kids with special needs, kids who live in abusive homes, or in homes with food insecurity.
But we are in the middle of a global freaking pandemic and things aren’t exactly going great in that department right now. There are people who can’t be bothered to wear a mask to CVS, and we’re expecting all 56 million of our nations school kids to comply? And don’t even get me started on playdates and parties. How are we to trust COVID won’t spread in schools when people are still gathering with friends, and can’t be bothered to abide by current guidelines?
In my opinion, the reopening school debate is one we should postpone for now. Let’s get this goddamn pandemic under control. Let’s vaccinate all teachers and staff. Let’s wait till even more data comes out about best practices and how to ensure that even the lower income schools can implement them. Let’s wait till we can get to a place where overall transmission is down, placing the number of in-school transmissions even lower as well.
Because, as much as it’s important for our kids to be in school right now, none of it is worth risking more lives. None of it. Period.