As the new school year fast approaches, whether and how to reopen is caught up in the ongoing novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Is it safe for students to attend brick-and-mortar classrooms? Can we make it safer? And should they attend classes even if we can’t?
With a scheduled start date of Aug. 12 in New Orleans, there isn’t much time or money to spare. Some parents feel opening schools on time seems rushed and reckless. Online schooling could continue for a while.
To limit the spread of contagion requires several steps:
- Wear a mask. This protects the person wearing the mask and the people around the mask wearer.
- Stay home. The less you interact with other people, the less chance of spreading or catching the virus.
- Six feet of separation. Stay at least six feet away from other people outside the home.
- Personal hygiene. Wash hands often for at least 30 seconds, and use hand sanitizer when that’s not possible.
- Small groups only. Limit social gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
To make this possible in schools may require millions of dollars and the will to do it.
The State of Louisiana
Louisiana ranks fourth per capita for COVID-19 infections (and 13th by total number) and eighth for deaths (ninth by total number), according to the COVID Data Tracker on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Bars had closed statewide on March 16 before being allowed to reopen at 25% capacity on June 5. New Orleans chose not to reopen them until June 13. They closed again July 15, following a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases. July 19 recorded the highest one-day increase in infections—3,167—surpassing April 2’s 2,726. Deaths, at 34, were little more than one-quarter of the high of 129 on April 14.
The reasons bars must remain closed while other businesses can (cautiously) reopen is because drinking in crowded indoor spaces facilitates “heavy breathing in close proximity”—such as leaning in close and yelling to be heard—and touching the same sticky surfaces as one another. Social distancing is almost impossible, as is wearing a mask while you drink. And when people drink, they don’t always make wise decisions.
In some communities, surges in COVID-19 cases have been traced back to a single drinking establishment.
Many people now accept these best practices as necessary, including in Louisiana, but not all.
Though Gov. John Bel Edwards (a Democrat) was initially hesitant, he has now made mask-wearing mandatory (with a few exceptions) and has reclosed some recently reopened businesses such as bars. But Attorney General Jeff Landry (a Republican) says while the policy is wise, it is likely unconstitutional, and he opposes it on those grounds.
He is allowing gatherings as large as 50, five times the CDC limit.
US Senator John Kennedy (Republican), without supporting mandatory mask laws, said he wears a mask everywhere and two on airplanes “because I don’t want to die.” He recommended that everyone do the same and said the pandemic might be under control now if everyone had, along with staying six feet apart and washing their hands.
And at a press conference with Gov. Edwards on July 14 at Louisiana State University, US Vice President Mike Pence and White House Coronavirus Task Force member Deborah Birx came out in favor of wearing masks to help flatten the rising curve of COVID-19 but stopped short of making it mandatory.
The standing policy of the task force, Pence said, is to let the states make that determination, based on “their unique circumstances.”
But will they make the right decision? A leaked CDC document suggests that at least 10 of the 21 states that have reopened recently—and as many as 18—may need to partially shut down again—including bars, nightclubs, dine-in restaurants, and gyms—to control their surges. Louisiana is on that list.
Making Schools Safe
The same general principles concerning bars apply to schools as well. Classrooms are overcrowded, at least by social distancing standards. Children, especially young children, tend not to have the best hygiene. They get in close, touch each other and then touch their faces., And it’s hard to imagine them wearing and keeping on masks all day.
When the first wave of COVID-19 infections swept through the US in early 2020, many schools closed because young children in close quarters are efficient incubators and transmitters of diseases. By shutting them down in March it was hoped there would be time to bring COVID-19 under control and/or better prepare for it before the Fall semester began.
Both hopes were overly optimistic. Not enough people followed the safety protocols; there hasn’t been enough testing, and results come in too slowly to contact-trace and isolate any people they might have been infected by or infected.
States and businesses, with prodding from politicians in Washington, arguably reopened too soon. Now the US COVID-19 infection and death rates are higher than most other industrialized countries.
There are more supplies of medical supplies, cleansers, and personal protective equipment (PPE), some improvement in testing, but in other ways, the nation is as unprepared to cope as when the pandemic started.
Despite this, there is a strong impetus to resume school as normal as quickly as possible. As US Education Secretary Betsy Devos said, schools must reopen. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of how.”
No one wants to have this continue into the fall. While online learning is better than nothing, it is not ideal. It has drawbacks, including:
- Technical. Not everybody has good enough Wi-fi or a digital device to make school from home practical and effective.
- Practical. Most students need personal attention at times. They learn better when they are in the same room as their teacher and fellow students.
- Social. The purpose of school isn’t only knowledge. It’s learning social skills, how to get along with others, to be comfortable in the presence of people other than your immediate family and friends.
- Mental. Early detection of mental health issues usually takes place in school. The skills acquired as a student may even prevent such issues.
Parents have an additional reason to desire that school resume as soon as possible: so they aren’t forced into home-schooling or daytime babysitting.
True, the COVID-19 lockdown also meant many parents were out of work or had to work from home, but not all. Even if they were working remotely, the distraction was not conducive to good concentration or productivity.
Other babysitters or daycare were likely not available, assuming they would trust their children to (possibly) infected strangers.
So, everyone agrees it is preferable that traditional school resumes in the fall. The risk of COVID-19 spread still remains.
While young people are less at risk for serious COVID-19 symptoms or death, it’s not zero. Besides, the children won’t be kept in a bubble. They will still interact with older people, at home, and in school. Even for the children, we don’t know if there are long-term consequences of COVID-19 exposure.
If parents and politicians really want Louisiana schools to reopen for the Fall 2020 semester, they will do everything within their power to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
To make schools safer requires additional safety steps, including
- Improved ventilation
- Additional sinks for washing hands
- More frequent cleaning of the premises
- Taking temperature before entering
- More, better, and faster testing.
School districts hard hit by the economic consequences of COVID-19 pandemic can ill afford the costs of reopening schools safely. One estimate is that the cost per school district will be almost $1.8 million. The proposed Reopen Schools Safely Act (co-sponsored by Louisiana’s senior Senator Bill Cassidy) would appropriate $90 billion, but whether or not it passes is an open question right now
There still remains one big drawback to reopening schools now: the health of the teachers. They are not as resilient as their students. And they have their own families, too.
Most teachers want to come back. They love teaching. They love their students. And they cannot afford to remain unemployed.
If the school district won’t allow online schooling, they may accede to the “Open Schools at Any Cost” demands of some politicians and parents.
The question is whether they should be asked to risk their lives under the present conditions.
Even though children are less likely to get a serious case of COVID-19 (so far as we know; there might be long-term effects), 24% of teachers nationwide (almost 1.5 million)—about the same as workers overall—have a medical condition that makes them more susceptible to a severe case of COVID-19, such as:
- COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
- Heart disease
- Moderate to Severe Asthma
- BMI (Body Mass Index) greater than 40
- Compromised immune system due to cancer treatment or other causes.
- Being age 65 and older.
A survey by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers & School Employees, conducted electronically from June 30–July 10, found that 35% of school employees are at “increased risk for severe illness due to COVID-19” and 47% have someone in their household at increased risk.
Not surprisingly, many unions and their members oppose reopening plans. The Louisiana teachers federation survey found that 45% of employees would prefer to work from home, with only 34% in favor of returning to the school.
The American Federation of Teachers has been proactive, proposing “A Plan To Safely Reopen America’s Schools And Communities.” That’s a gradual reopening, community by community. It calls for more involvement of teachers and other workers in the planning process and increased investment for recovery throughout the community.
No matter how safe the schools are made, it doesn’t matter if COVID-19 remains bad outside the school.
Kennedy attributed base political motives to most people opposing schools reopening on time—although he allowed that “some” might have “good faith” disagreements with his arguments—and insisted that not opening would have worse consequences than COVID-19.
But then, he wanted to reopen the economy in April—despite acknowledging that more people would die as a result—to prevent the economy from crashing. He says teachers don’t have to get within six feet of their students to teach them.
That’s a false choice. Until it can be done with a reasonable expectation of safety, it’s wrong to rush a return to normalcy and risk the life and health of teachers and students. It’s a poor lesson and example.
Accommodations must be and have been made to cope with the reality of the pandemic.
Understanding this, the Louisiana Department of Health approved telehealth for mental health rehabilitation (MHR) treatment, including treatment programs for alcoholism and drug addiction. LDH said the orders approving virtual MHR treatment “will remain in effect until rescinded,” presumably when COVID-19 is much better under control.
Online education deserves the same consideration.
- COVID Data Tracker – cdc.gov – CDC COVID Data Tracker
- crowded indoor spaces – voanews.com – Closing Bars to Stop Coronavirus Spread is Backed by Science
- likely unconstitutional – wwltv.com – Louisiana AG says mask mandate is unconstitutional, unenforceable
- he wears a mask everywhere – cnsnews.com – Sen. John Kennedy: I Wear a Mask ‘Because I Don’t Want to Die – Duh!’
- press conference – rev.com – Governor Edwards and VP Pence COVID-19 Press Conference July 14
- detection of mental health issues – theconversation.com – Schools need to teach pupils skills to maintain good mental health – here’s how
- additional safety steps – detroitnews.com – Experts see path to safe school reopening in Michigan, but uncertainty lingers
- almost $1.8 million – asbointl.org – WHAT WILL IT COST TO REOPEN SCHOOLS?
- Senator Bill Cassidy – cassidy.senate.gov – Cassidy, Stabenow Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Help School Districts, Colleges Safely Reopen this Fall
- $90 billion – 8newsnow.com – $90B ‘Reopen Schools Safely’ legislation proposed by Titus
- 24% of teachers nationwide – kff.org – How Many Teachers Are at Risk of Serious Illness If Infected with Coronavirus?
- same as workers overall – kff.org – Almost One in Four Adult Workers is Vulnerable to Severe Illness from COVID-19
- 35% of school employees – la.aft.orgf – Reopening Schools 2020: A SURVEY OF LOUISIANA RESIDENTS
- American Federation of Teachers – aft.org – AFT Launches Landmark Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities
- “A Plan To Safely Reopen America’s Schools And Communities.” – aft.org – A PLAN TO SAFELY REOPEN AMERICA’S SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITIES
- “good faith” disagreements – realclearpolitics.com – Sen. Kennedy: Those Using Kids As Political Pawns To Close Schools Can “Kiss My Ass”
- reopen the economy in April – usatoday.com – Sen. Kennedy says economic activity must resume even though that means coronavirus will ‘spread faster’
Stephen Bitsoli is a guest blogger who writes about the intersection of politics and science, including addiction, education, and law enforcement. An avid reader and a longtime magazine and newspaper writer, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.