By Brian Crespo – News Editor
September 22 marks the first official day of the fall equinox. It is a season that will be remembered for many years to come, and perhaps not fondly. COVID-19 will be approaching its first birthday some murky time between September and December. Political tensions will exacerbate the most contentious election in modern history, intensified by an unpredictable economy and credit crisis. The nation’s schools will have reopened long enough to judge whether a return to in-person learning is a viable option for millions of America’s families.
In an article titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall,” the CDC makes the compelling case that remote learning is failing to fill the emotional and academic void left by in-person teaching. It is a solid argument, and well-referenced. Low income school districts are struggling to communicate with their students, many of whom lack laptops and adequate internet reception. Students with disabilities are unable to receive the careful attention they desperately require. The inequalities that existed before the pandemic have been exacerbated. The academic gap between the races, sexes, and social classes has widened.
Not even the most fervent proponent of remote learning has argued that it is a proper substitute for what came before. The question is whether in-person learning can be done with enough safety to justify its obvious benefits. We will likely have that answer in the coming weeks.
On adolescent safety, the CDC devotes two paragraphs in what amounts to a three-page article. Here the claims made are less intuitive than those made for the superiority of in-person over remote learning. It reports (citing itself as reference) that children and adolescents 18 years and younger have, as of July 17 accounted for only 7 percent of all cases and .1 percent of all fatalities. It is well established that populations high in comorbidity, such as the elderly, are much more vulnerable to COVID. Children, less likely to suffer from heart disease, hypertension, and obesity, have by far the lowest mortality rate of any group. According to the CDC’s covid-tracker, as of 9/11, the total reported deaths for the 0 to 17 age range is 81 in total. In contrast, deaths for the 85 and older cohort has reached 44,670, a multiplier of about 550.
Children are generally safe from death or severe illness. But it is their ability to act as asymptomatic carriers that threatens an outbreak. As noted above, as of July 17, those 18 years and younger accounted for only 7 percent of all cases nationwide. What must be determined is how much of this is due to an innate immunity on the part of children, and how much is attributable to differences in lifestyle and testing. Children are less likely to be tested because they are more likely to be asymptomatic. Thus, the number of cases reported may understate the reality. Adolescents also stopped in-person schooling around late spring. Sitting in their rooms, their chance of infection was greatly diminished. The 18 and older bracket, by contrast, comprised the bulk share of essential workers who, in the course of their duties, will have made contact with several hundred people per day. It is understandable that children, being both healthier and cloistered in their homes, would comprise a low percent of total cases and deaths. But no evidence suggests they cannot act as spreaders, only that their ability to do so was until recently curtailed.
The mitigation measures imposed by schools, and how strictly they adhere to them, will determine the success of returning to in-person learning. On August 4 , an image went viral showing high school students shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder down a narrow hallway in Georgia. No one in the photo is wearing a mask. The school initially suspended the student who took the photo, a decision that was later reversed. After several students and staff tested positive for the virus, the school introduced a hybrid online and in-person curriculum to prevent overcrowding.
The CDC’s guidelines are useless if ignored or impractical. If the image from that Georgia high school is representative of even a small subset of schools across the country, it won’t take many to reignite a local outbreak.
Anthony Fauci, long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has warned to “never underestimate the potential of the pandemic” as we head into the fall and winter. The CDC noted that, during H1N1, more commonly known as Swine Flu, 358 pediatric deaths were reported. That is less than the only 64 child deaths reported during the current pandemic. It should be remembered, however, that far less schools were shuttered by Swine Flu than by COVID. The attempt to put figures into context – in this case, the number of child deaths – walks a thin line between practicality and callousness.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick came under scrutiny in March for a comment suggesting elderly people are, or should be, willing to change their survival for “keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.”
(The context of the full comment makes it clear this vague euphemism was referring to the threat of economical collapse). That same month, the President referred to automobile accidents as an example of an inherent, and unavoidable, risk of a necessary activity. “That means we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars,” he asked. This is not a perfect metaphor and has been widely criticized as an oversimplification. But at the end of the day, safety is a social standard. The answer to can schools open safely is another question — what is safe?