Schools are on thin ice and winter has yet to begin

This op-ed was written on October 9th and published on October 25th, in the Florida Times Union at which I am a guest columnist. I feel so foolishly compelled to write these essays as some small way to make a small difference in this giant mess we all find ourselves. The elections are about a week away. Hopefully, the country will find itself in a better place come November 4th. 

Link to online article

Here is the original essay, which was shortened a little for publication in the Florida Times Union. I have updated the covid stats to the most recent numbers available on October 25, 2020. The references at the bottom of this post include links to websites that collect and published school covid stats, which were the sources of the stats included in my essay.

“Schools are on thin ice and winter has yet to begin”

Nobody wants to hear this, everyone wants to remain in denial, but since schools started, there have been at least 76,786 cases of covid in K-12! If you count colleges, that number skyrockets to more than 239,072 infections. These infections have affected 5,197 schools and 1,593 colleges. The lion’s share of these infections have occurred in Republican run states: Texas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Ohio top the list. 

Schools in Georgia and elsewhere, which initially opened in early August without masks, experienced outbreaks that forced them to close and reverse their policies. The schools which opened fulltime with larger numbers of students experienced the worst problems.

In Florida, some large school districts such as Duval (Jacksonville), were planning on opening with masks being optional for all practical purposes. Masks were required, but there were zero penalties for not wearing them. Duval schools changed their minds shortly after what happened in Georgia and added penalties for not wearing masks. It’s highly likely some version of this happened all over the country.

In prior articles and op-eds, including my own, people warned that without masks and other preventive measures, schools could be a disaster. Schools have not precipitated widespread disasters, not because the potential is not there, but because these disasters are being mitigated for the time being. That is if you consider 76,786 cases of covid successful mitigation.

Currently, many schools are operating in some mode that keeps classroom occupancy artificially low and facilitates greater social distancing. Most schools now have mask requirements. We know that if the masks come off, then the infections start. This means many schools are likely currently hovering right at the tipping point. It is entirely possible that even if the masks stay on, as the number of students in classrooms increases, the problems may start anyway. 

Health experts have known for months that coronavirus infections can occur from aerosolized virus particles that can hang in the air like smoke for long periods of time and travel much farther than six feet. In enclosed spaces, the concentration of these aerosolized particles can build over hours, increasing the risk hour by hour. For whatever reason, the CDC was slow to adjust its guidelines. A week ago, after almost all schools had opened, the CDC finally came out with official adjusted guidelines warning about the danger of aerosolized coronavirus. The good news is that aerosolized coronavirus is only a serious risk in small enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. The bad news is that this is a perfect description of a classroom.

It is hard to find schools that have or can implement measures that mitigate the risks warned about in these new CDC aerosolized guidelines. As long as the kids wear masks, they may be okay in those small sealed classrooms, but there are two areas of concern. The kids have to take their masks off to eat, and in many schools they are eating in their small sealed classrooms. The second concern is that as more schools transition from virtual to classroom teaching, the more we are putting pressure on these existing protective measures. These are life and death measures and conditions that are far below what you would find at any place familiar with dealing with viruses such as a hospital, and even below what you would find at many supermarkets. 

At what point will these measures breakdown and outbreaks begin? We do not precisely know because there are too many variables and not enough data, partially due to zero rapid testing for screening daily school entry as they do at the White House. What we do know is that daily rapid testing can make a big difference, but not enough on its own without masks and other measures. What we do know is that what we are currently doing has resulted in 76,786 cases of covid. What we do know is that most schools are underfunded and unable to implement all basic protective measures recommended by the CDC. What we do know is that most cases of covid in kids is asymptomatic and hard to detect. What we do know is that reporting of covid cases in many schools is inconsistent, spotty, and delayed by many days or longer. What we do know is that covid fatigue and complacency are setting in, and this will lead to poor decision making. All of this taken together is a recipe for perfect-covid-storms made worse by delayed detection and reporting of outbreaks before they become super-spreader events. 

The reality is that our schools are on thin ice, and any mistake may break that ice. The reality is that every day we are bringing more kids back into the classroom and increasing the weight on that thin ice. The reality is that we are experimenting with the lives of our children and our teachers, and it should not be this way, did not have to be this way, and does not have to be this way. Let’s not break the thin ice!

References: 

https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/teacher-creates-national-database-tracking-covid-19-outbreaks

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/08/28/906263926/how-many-coronavirus-cases-are-happening-in-schools-this-tracker-keeps-count

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/u/1/d/e/2PACX-1vQSD9mm5HTXhxAiHabZA6BPUByWBlP5HZ2jfOPEeGZkMB0ZFsmFBL5orqjIq22mjFNZ7n-11ObCylGn/pubhtml

https://www.thecovidmonitor.com

https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/fb52d598982f41faac714b5ebe32e7d1

https://public.tableau.com/profile/jon.w1876?fbclid=IwAR2cW3O_WiyP4QR8dyyaJ0M4RmxhWTTY_VbJYvr4KDqRhlhD0fmvhpYePfk#!/vizhome/COVID-19USSchools/Dashboard1

https://www.npr.org/2020/09/23/915738935/new-dashboard-tracks-coronavirus-cases-in-schools-across-47-states