In the U.S., new COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high. The nation leads the world for the number of cases and mortality. There are no centralized federal guidelines for safely reopening schools during a peak of the pandemic, and the CDC’s suggested guidelines have been denigrated by politicians, including the president. In this diseased, disorganized landscape, the government is commanding teachers and children to return to schools in just a few weeks—and teachers are terrified, for themselves as well as their students.
Although Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated “nothing in the data” suggests children being in school is “in any way dangerous,” eight percent of children who get the virus wind up in the ICU, and 0.7 percent die, according to a multinational study published in The Lancet on June 25. Even more children are reportedly suffering long-lasting health repercussions. While the CDC says most children experience mild COVID-19 cases, children with pre-existing medical conditions are more likely to develop severe disease.
But children can also act as vectors of infection between adults, carrying it between parents and other adults they come into contact with, including school teachers and administrators.
“There is no question: When we send kids back to school, we’ll see an uptick in cases and mortality in the general population,” said MarkAlain Dery, the medical director of infectious diseases and chief innovation officer for Access Health Louisiana, the largest Medicaid-providing clinic system in the state.
That’s what happened in Israel, where schools reopened on May 17. On that day, Israel added only 10 new cases. By the end of June, the country had added 1,400 cases—657 of which contract tracers tracked to schools. As of July 14, more than 2,000 students, teachers, and staff had been infected with COVID-19, and cases are surging. When schools reopen in the U.S., public health officials foresee a similar pattern.
“We’re… forced into the front lines of a worldwide pandemic at the mandate of a leader who knows the risks,” said Chiamaka Osegbu, 28, an elementary school teacher in Delaware. “Educators are fearful not only for our own lives, but for the lives of our loved ones, students and families that we serve, and educators that we partner with… There’s absolutely no guarantee that returning to full in-person teaching will not create a breeding ground for the virus.”
In College Station, Texas, where Pricilla Williams (whose name has been changed for fear of professional repercussions) has taught for 16 years, public schools will reopen August 13, even though new cases are on a continuous upward trajectory and the ICU is at 82 percent capacity in her district.
“It’s getting worse every day,” said Williams, who is 40. “Every morning, I wake up and think, Here we go again, another day of the pandemic, another day closer to going back to school and not knowing what’s going to happen. My six-year-old son and I both have asthma. Will we get sick? … My lawyer said, ‘You need to have a will. It sounds horrible and dark, but you have to prepare for the worst.’”
In Williams’ district, parents can choose whether to send students to school or opt for online learning, but her family doesn’t have that luxury. Neither she nor her husband can afford to stay home. Williams fears the “total mess” she will encounter in schools, where many younger students likely will not understand the concepts of hygiene and social distancing.
“I don’t want to have to go to a co-worker’s funeral or, God forbid, one of my student’s funerals,” said Williams. “Not even a funeral—a virtual funeral. I didn’t sign up for this. First, they expect us to take a bullet for kids when there’s an active shooter, and now this.”
Because of the pandemic reopenings, Williams’ older co-workers are contemplating retirement. In a New Orleans suburb, so is Bob Grabert (name has been changed), a trumpet player who teaches music classes. A 30-year veteran of the public school system, he knows his health conditions (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, recent surgeries, high cholesterol and blood pressure, and sleep apnea) put him at high risk. He also doesn’t want to bring the virus home to his wife, a recovering cancer patient diagnosed with grade 3 astrocytoma, a malignant kind of brain tumor. But he can’t afford to retire.
“If I retire, I’m not going to be able to keep the house,” said Grabert, who is 59. “Why do we have to open the school right now, at the height of the spread? Can we not just wait? They want to restart the American economy, but it doesn’t make sense to use kids as guinea pigs.”
Jennifer Bunny (whose name has been changed), a 37-year-old audiologist who visited three to four schools daily before the shutdown, works with special education students. A high proportion of them are immunocompromised. Although her California school system will not reopen physically in the fall, she is worried about spreading the disease to vulnerable children when it does open at an unspecified future date.
“Working in special ed, you see kids with multiple disabilities, and there’s a lot of close contact [between students and teachers],” Bunny said. “With those kids, my main concern is if I continue to go from school to school, I could come in contact with [COVID-19] and become a super spreader.”
Although it’s possible for schools to implement changes and policies that would keep kids safe, those are lacking, said Dery. The lockdown would have been an ideal time for public health officials to build strong national testing and contact tracing programs, promote mask-wearing, and create a solid system for indicators on when to open or close schools—but that didn’t happen.
“How many times can you say, 'Stop, we’re going in the wrong direction?'” Dery said. “We know the right thing to do, and we haven’t done the right thing, and, every day, there are more and more cases.”
Even in cities that have successfully flattened the curve and in school districts that are implementing safety measures like staggered class schedules and distanced desks, such as Shehtaz Huq’s sixth-grade classroom in the Bronx, there’s still a risk. Huq, 29, fears that, even in a best-case scenario, returning to the classroom when the U.S. is adding more than 60,000 new COVID-19 cases per day will further traumatize children.
"We can't just jump in and ignore the emotional hardship kids have faced. We can't expect them to perform at pre-pandemic levels of academic output," Huq said. “I want people to think about the trauma we’re inflicting on kids by forcing them to pretend things are normal when they aren’t.”
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