The pandemic and schools: Let’s protect our kids, our schools — our community

BY CORBIE HILL, Guest Columnist
Posted 7/24/20

The school year starts in a few weeks, and my stress level is through the ceiling.

Yes, Chatham County Schools decided late last week to operate on Plan C — remote learning only — for four …

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The pandemic and schools: Let’s protect our kids, our schools — our community

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Posted

The school year starts in a few weeks, and my stress level is through the ceiling.

Yes, Chatham County Schools decided late last week to operate on Plan C — remote learning only — for four weeks. This should be a source of relief, but it’s really not. Like a lot of parents and school employee spouses (I’m in both categories), I’m terrified that sooner or later schools will be reopened in some capacity, putting my wife and children — and all school and school employee families — in immediate danger.

In the greater scheme of the COVID-19 pandemic, four weeks is the blink of an eye. Four weeks, too, brings us one month closer to a fall and winter that CDC Director Robert Redfield warns “are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health,” thanks to the combination of flu season with the United States’ runaway COVID-19 numbers.

Much of the conversation surrounding school reopenings nationwide is predicated upon an incomplete understanding of how COVID-19 affects children. Contrary to the body of folk wisdom that has coalesced during this pandemic, children are not immune. In Nueces County, Texas, 85 infants have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-March, per CNN; closer to home, an 8-year-old Durham girl died of COVID-19 in June, as Victoria Bouloubasis reported for Enlace Latino NC.

“While we’ve seen an explosion of COVID-19 research, and we’re learning something new every day, a relatively small proportion of that research has been on children,” Duke primary care pediatrician Charlene Wong said during a virtual media briefing. The erroneous conclusion that children are immune likely stems from early studies which, thanks to small sample sizes and other flaws, gave an incomplete picture of how coronarivus affects children, per the July 18 New York Times story “Older Children Spread the Coronavirus Just as Much as Adults, Large Study Finds.” The South Korean study mentioned by the NYT, with its more substantive sample size of 65,000, found that those aged 10 to 19 are just as likely to spread COVID-19 as adults. Children under the age of 10 were about half as likely to spread the virus.

That’s hardly immunity.

“I fear that there has been this sense that kids just won’t get infected or don’t get infected in the same way as adults and that, therefore, they’re almost like a bubbled population,” observed University of Minnesota infectious diseases expert Michael Osterholm.

And even if through some form of magical thinking it were somehow safe to send children into school buildings, what of teachers? What of school staff? True, face coverings and social distancing remain some of our best defenses when we must go out, but neither guarantees safety. In a recent open letter, N.C. State cosmologist Katie Mack wrote that thanks to differences in construction and use, face coverings’ effectiveness in filtering airborne particles can range from 28 to 90 percent. “The range of efficacies makes it clear that masks should not be considered protective over extended periods of time when people are in close quarters,” she writes. Beyond that, as she continues, airborne droplets can travel much farther in enclosed spaces.

I have a chronic form of leukemia. My wife is also a cancer survivor. And we know that we aren’t the only family in the district with underlying conditions — not by a long stretch. For teachers and school staff in their 60s; for those of us with underlying conditions; even for healthy adults, the threat is too great to expect school staff to return for in-person education. Even with masks and cleaning protocols, people will get sick. People will die. As of Monday — the day North Carolina topped 100,000 cases — Chatham County’s rate was 147.7 per 10,000 population, or the 11th-highest rate of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

In terms of deaths per capita, we are fourth in the state, per the New York Times.

Fourth.

None of this was inevitable, by the way, and there’s only the muddiest of logic behind talk about reopening or returning to normal; whatever normal was, it’s gone. Decisions need to be made based upon the world as it is now. Indeed and for the sake of getting this monster under control, now is the time to shut everything down we can, wear our masks and stay apart.

Four weeks of virtual school is a strong start and a move in the most responsible direction, but it’s exactly that: a start. As a county, let’s not just hit the snooze button on this critical issue. Rather, let’s act to protect our kids, our teachers, our school staff and — ultimately — our entire community.

Corbie Hill is a staff writer with Duke Magazine and a journalist whose work has appeared in News & Observer, INDY Week, Our State, and The Chicago Tribune, as well as the News + Record. He lives in Pittsboro with his family.

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