For reasons that defy logic, most school districts in New Jersey are choosing to approach the pandemic as if it were a challenging new curriculum and not a public health emergency.
By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, August 20, 2020
“There is an analogy I like to use,” explains Steve Baker, Director of Communications for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). “It’s like each school district began the pandemic with a boat full of holes. All summer, the various districts were hard at work, patching their holes. Some had more than others, some had bigger holes than others. In the end, a school might have gone from say 20 holes, down to three, which is really commendable, and took a tremendous amount of work. But even a small hole can be catastrophic when it comes to boats, which is why you don’t go to sea with holes in your boat.”
Given the global health crisis presented by the pandemic, ever since Governor Murphy closed the schools in the Spring of this year, the entire state has been concerned with how and when to reopen. All public schools in New Jersey were required to submit plans to the Department of Education to show how they planned to open safely. What little guidance there was from the CDC, was vague and corrupted by politics, as their initial recommendations were rejected by the Trump administration as “too strict,” and revised to accommodate a more lenient approach. The schools were largely left to their own devices and each school presumably did the best they could.
Until quite recently, all public schools in New Jersey were required to offer in-school instruction, at least in some form, even if they were also supplementing with remote learning. To what extent was left up to them. Most schools chose to take what has been called a hybrid approach, meaning a combination of remote learning, and in-school instruction. On August 12, after some districts announced they wouldn’t be re-opening at all, the Governor announced that schools would now have the option to open fully-remotely. A few North Jersey districts had already made clear their intention to go fully remote in the fall. They include Passaic, Elizabeth, Jersey City and Bayonne. All of the districts in Cape May County have declined that option and are proceeding with a hybrid model.
“I actually think that the hybrid model is probably among the worst that we could be putting forward, if our goal is to stop the virus getting into schools,” explained Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The difficulty with [the hybrid model], from an epidemiological point of view, is the number of contacts which get generated. So if kids are in school two days a week and then the other three days a week they are at home, the parents are probably going to end up having to seek child care from somewhere else. That means the child is making a new contact they would not have made otherwise, and that just provides another chance for the child to become infected and then bring it into the school.”1
Infectious disease experts believe schools will be the epicenter for the spread of COVID-19 this fall. A study based in the UK, released August 3rd, predicted that reopening schools on a full-time or hybrid basis will induce a second COVID wave 2 to 2.3x larger than the first.
According to one recent study,2 while children generally present with mild symptoms compared with adults, young children carry high viral loads, including some 100x that of adults, and children can be significant drivers of COVID-19 virus spread to the community; Children between the ages of 10 – 19 can spread COVID-19 at least as well as adults.
Furthermore, it’s not just students, teachers and staff that may be affected. Community members’ lives are at stake. The data is undeniable that COVID-19 more tragically impacts older people and people of color. A Kaiser Family Foundation study indicated that there are 134,000 school-aged children living in the home with folks aged 65+ within the state of NJ. Additionally, senior citizens who are people of color, are more likely to live with a school-age child.3
It is true that a few countries have successfully reopened schools, but only those with transmission rates that have been considerably lower, with more advanced testing a contact-tracing than anything currently being employed in the United States. Nearly 75% of countries throughout the world have instituted, and continue to institute country-wide school closures, to control the spread of COVID-19.
When countries have re-opened schools prematurely, such as seen recently in Israel, the results were devastating. When Israel reopened schools, with significant mitigation efforts in place, there were only 10 new daily cases. Since reopening, Israel’s COVID-19 numbers have surged and their schools have since closed. As of Aug. 17th, NJ had 399 new cases, not 10.
It is nearly impossible to reconcile the rationale for re-opening schools at this time, with a desire to keep our children and our communities safe, without assuming there are other forces at play, either political, economic, or both.
There is a valid concern on the part of many concerning child-care if schools are not re-opened, but in a hybrid system, the children are still home three days out of the week, so it’s unclear how this does anything but complicate the situation with no relief.
There is also the question of once you have implemented all the safety measures needed to presumably open a school safely, whether you have in fact, rid yourself of all the advantages of in-school instruction. The teachers and students are masked, removing facial cues and human interaction. Social distancing is enforced, eliminating human contact. Communal activities such as lunch, gym and recess are severely limited or altered. Group projects, music, arts and athletics are all diminished or cancelled.
It is a bit like going to a live, professional sporting event in an enormous stadium. It’s nice to be at the game, and it’s very exciting to be there with all the other fans, but if you actually wanted to watch the game, especially in any sort of detail, you’d be better watching it at home. Being there in person feels great. It feels important, and like you’re part of the action, but really you’re just being overwhelmed with spectacle, making it extremely difficult to follow along.
This is not to say schools should abandon in-school instruction just yet, but when you’ve taken all the positives away, and left with only the risk, you have to question the wisdom of the entire affair.
It’s as if they finally opened indoor dining, but because of safety precautions, you can’t sit, it’s completely dark, you can’t hear anything, and you have no idea what you’re eating. You would have been better off if they’d delivered the food to your house and watched the chef cook it on your television.
This ship has sailed, holes and all. Despite all the warnings from epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and even teachers, most schools begin in a few weeks. We will soon find out how wise that decision turns out to be. It seems unlikely to be a success, with a high probability for failure, and a reasonable chance for catastrophic results.
If you were offered a business deal, or a gambling bet with those odds, you’d walk away in disbelief. Instead we have decided to try a bold, new experiment concerning the spread of a highly contagious disease within a confined space, and we’ve chosen to use children, not known for their ability to follow strict rules of behavior, as the guinea pigs.
What could go wrong?