Right Now Is Not the Time To Re-Open Schools

Heartbreaking as it is to say this, how is it sensible to re-open now?

  • Thursday, January 28, 2021 1:14pm
  • Opinion

Hard choices. High risks. They never seem to let up in the ongoing age of coronavirus.

This week, we chronicle Vashon Island School District’s plans to implement hybrid-education — a shift that might start to roll out in the coming weeks.

Through 2020, the district faced innumerable hard choices, and in most cases, made sound decisions. The district’s most controversial move — switching to a quarters system for online education for secondary students — created a stir when it was announced, but has now proven popular with teachers, students and parents.

The district has also safely brought small numbers of preschoolers and its highest-need students back to its building. All the while, it has meticulously planned for a larger re-opening, but always backed away when case numbers spiked.

Now, those discussions are back on the table, because the Washington Department of Health has loosened guidance on when schools may open. Following these new directives, many nearby districts have started to bring all their elementary-aged children back to the classroom.

VISD no doubt wants to do the same, for good reasons. Online school is hugely inequitable. Learning loss has been steep.

But the state’s shift in guidance is not just dramatic. It is seismic.

The last time Vashon schools considered implementing hybrid education, last October, cases in King County stood at 53 per 100,000. However, as cases rose throughout that month to a high of 86 per 100,000, Superintendent Slade McSheehy pulled the plug on hybrid education because according to the old DOH guidelines, it was too dangerous.

On Monday, cases in King Count stood at 262 per 100,000 people — a number that DOH has now deemed acceptable for in-person education.

But why? Along with sky-high case numbers, there’s also something new out there now: variants of the virus, including the UK strain that last week was confirmed to be in our state. It’s almost twice as transmissible as the old one, and the CDC has warned that this strain could be dominant in the United States by March. In the UK, where the strain has already taken hold, schools have now gone completely virtual again.

In announcing its new guidelines, DOH cited data to make a case that incidents of infections and outbreaks in schools have remained limited, even in areas of high rates of infection, when schools have followed strict safety measures.

But last week, reporting in The Seattle Times suggested that DOH’s data was less than completely convincing.

“… there have been few research studies confirming this finding, which is based on crowdsourced, not representative, data,” reporters Hannah Furfaro and Dalia Bazzaz wrote in their article, “Why did Inslee and DOH ease guidance for reopening schools in Washington state?” (available online at tinyurl.com/yxsa7u2n).

They said that the state has collected little data of its own and that in fact, that “a robust and well-studied log of cases in Washington schools that pointed toward safety” doesn’t exist. Rather, the authors said, officials made the decision based on the principle that for “academic and mental health reasons, more students should be learning in-person.”

Of course, all kids should be back in school. But as heartbreaking as it is to say this, how is it sensible to re-open now? Why not wait, at least, until teachers are vaccinated?

That’s the view of Dr. Vin Gupta, a critical care pulmonologist, affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and a regular health policy contributor for national news programs.

In recent appearances, Gupta has repeatedly urged caution in terms of re-opening schools in light of high case numbers and the emergence of new variants. Schools, he said, should “pause in-person, vaccinate teachers and staff, then resume.”

Vashon has thus far, through good luck and stellar local leadership by VashonBePrepared and our own Medical Reserve Corps, as well as cautious decisions made by our public institutions like VISD, escaped the devastation caused by community spread of the virus.

Why take the risk of that happening now, at a time when both variants and vaccines stream toward our small island in Puget Sound?

The re-opening of schools has always been an emotional topic. It has never been right that bars reopened before schools did. It has never been fair that some public workers have been called back to work, at great personal danger, while others have not. But these past missteps are no excuse for not doing the right thing now.

Put children first, by prioritizing safe workspaces for all school staff and childcare workers, before opening up yet another new vector for the coronavirus to spread.

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