Our Opinion: No good choices on school reopenings
News last week that local schools won't be reopening to students in September was met with a mixed response.
That's to be expected. Summer break is typically a little less than three months, but in Washington County, kids have been home since March. Many parents are looking forward to having them back in classrooms, so that their young minds can learn and the adults can get some work done.
We don't fully understand the impact that being away from classrooms for much of the year may have on students from pre-kindergarten through high college and school.
Some studies suggest that even being away from school for summer break can be a serious setback for some students' learning and social skills. This kind of extended — and indefinite — interruption is virtually without precedent, at least in the United States.
It's also disruptive to the economy.
Many businesses have loosened their policies to allow more employees to work remotely. In fact, some have closed their physical offices altogether.
But many workers don't have that option. Checkers can't ring up shoppers' groceries from the comfort of their home office. Preschool and daycare teachers can't lead their classes of 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds via Zoom or Blackboard Learn. Critical care nurses can't hook up patients to IV feeds without standing bedside. And even workers who can do their jobs from home are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to be productive employees while also being responsible parents, especially if their kids' teachers are counting on their help to keep them on track with virtual learning.
And there are knock-on effects that we haven't gotten our heads around yet, either.
Take sports, for instance.
This newspaper published a weekly sports section for decades — a section that has become less frequent and much less robust since, midway through the OSAA state basketball tournament in March, high school sports were put on hold and schools were shuttered.
With the spring sports season wiped out and more questions than answers surrounding the fall season, many student athletes are losing critical time not only for developing the skills to win ballgames and competitions, but honing their ability to lead and work as a team — and not only for training to get stronger or faster, but also to build up the durability and flexibility to stay healthy and avoid injuries.
That's an issue already playing out as Major League Baseball attempts to plow through a shortened season. While player injuries are unavoidable to some extent, they've piled up at an alarming rate just two weeks into the season, with pitchers — who depend more than anyone else on proper conditioning and a stable routine — bearing the brunt of them.
Or consider advanced fields, like manufacturing or research and development.
The high-tech sector is a big part of the local economy, with the largest private employers in cities like Hillsboro and Tualatin being tech companies. And we've written lots in recent years about efforts to promote more local shoots and saplings in the "Silicon Forest," with tech companies, business lobbies, school districts, local governments and booster clubs partnering to set up a talent pipeline from Washington County middle and high schools, Portland Community College, and the Oregon Institute of Technology into high-paying, highly skilled jobs in our area.
Those initiatives hinge on skills training. Some of that comes in the form of after-school programs — STEM clubs, computer science workshops and more. Some of it is embedded in the so-called core curriculum, with high-level concepts finding their way into science and math classes. Much of it is tied up in elective classes and programs — some of them offered through or in partnership with PCC or OIT, and many of them dependent on hands-on learning.
The idea behind a pipeline is that there's a constant flow through them. Otherwise, deposits can form, backups can build and the pipeline itself can deteriorate. But a lengthy closure of schools shuts off the flow, or at least throttles it down to a trickle. That harms local companies — how much is yet to be determined — and it could reduce opportunities for local students.
The list goes on and on. There's a reason school is in session for nine and a half months out of the year. Keeping students home when they should be in classrooms learning, or on the field improving their game, or in workshops acquiring job skills, is damaging in any number of ways, and we won't fully understand the magnitude of the damage for months or years to come.
All that being said, however: We agree with Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Health Authority, and local leaders, educators and public health experts. It is not safe or wise for schools to reopen at this point. The coronavirus is simply too widespread, and the consequences of allowing it to spread unchecked through our schools would be unbearable.
This isn't a decision to take lightly.
School officials are vowing that the "distance learning" experience this fall will be miles ahead of what it was this spring. We certainly hope so, and we'll be keeping a watchful eye on how it goes for students, parents and teachers alike. But even the best distance learning program has the major drawbacks we've outlined above, and those must be kept in mind.
Ultimately, we are in this position because we have — as a nation, as a state and as a society — failed to check the spread of this contagious virus. We are not positioned nearly as well as many other countries, which range from highly developed nations like Germany, New Zealand and Taiwan to lower-income nations like Thailand, Uruguay and Vietnam, that have taken decisive steps to thwart the virus. The virus is simply too prevalent in our community for it to be safe, or anything approaching safe, for students to return to classrooms and mingle with their peers.
Our failure to suppress the virus is reflected in our rate of positive tests. While Oregon continues to lag behind many other states on testing, the number of tests being conducted is up considerably from the early weeks of the outbreak, and the positivity rate has crept up as well. Although there are signs it may be leveling off, it's still north of the 5% mark that state officials say Oregon needs to get below — and stay there for several weeks — before school districts can contemplate reopening.
What does a high positivity rate mean? Simply put, it means more people have COVID-19. While it's unlikely that the population being tested is a perfect microcosm of the general population — many are being tested because they have symptoms or have had contact with someone else who had symptoms or a positive test — when more than 5% of people who are tested are receiving a positive for the coronavirus, that's a pretty good indication that a significant fraction of the general population is infected.
Why does that matter? Well, think about a classroom. Oregon has some of the largest class sizes in the country. In normal times, that would be a problem for public education and a factor in why Oregon has some of the nation's worst-performing public schools. But in the time of the coronavirus, it also points to an elevated health risk. This is an oversimplification, but: If there are 30 people in a class and, conservatively, one in 30 Oregonians has an active COVID-19 infection, then the average classroom will have one student who is infectious. And we know enough about the coronavirus to know that if one person is infectious and they come into close contact with other people, especially in an enclosed, indoor environment, they won't be the only infectious person for long.
Schools are a super-spreading risk because they place a large number of people in fairly close proximity in an indoor environment for a sustained period of time, and they do so repeatedly. While schools, like businesses, can adopt social distancing protocols to reduce the risk of viral transmission, they cannot eliminate it altogether. Research suggests that mask-wearing is effective, but it's not 100% effective, especially without universal compliance — and no, wearing the mask under your nose because it's "more comfortable" that way does not count.
And children are social creatures, and often willful ones as well. Young children especially may have a difficult time remembering to keep their distance or practice proper hygiene. There's a reason elementary schools teach handwashing.
While COVID-19 appears to have a substantially higher risk of complications among older adults, younger people aren't immune to it. About one in every 40 Oregonians in their 20s who has tested positive for COVID-19 has been hospitalized due to complications from the virus. About one in every 70 Oregonian children and teenagers who have tested positive have been hospitalized. Collectively, Oregonians under age 30 make up more than one-third of known cases. For your child's school, do the math.
What's more, the risk isn't contained to students. Teachers and other school staff could be infected through close contact with a student who has COVID-19. A student could infect another student, who then returns home and infects family members in an at-risk group. As of 2018, according to the American Community Survey, more than 72,000 grandparents in Oregon lived in the same household as a grandchild under age 18, and nearly one-third of all households included at least one person 65 or older.
One day, hopefully before the end of the year, students will be able to return to classrooms. It's a day we're all looking forward to. But in order to get there, we need to step up our game. With community prevalence being what it is, it's not simply enough to flatten the curve — we need to bend it downward. We need to reduce the prevalence of the coronavirus in our community. Eventually, with luck, we need to vaccinate widely against the coronavirus. Even then, we may need to keep certain safeguards in place, like face coverings or capacity restrictions, since it's unlikely we can wipe out the virus once and for all.
So, we implore you: If you want your children to go back to school, wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Avoid large gatherings. Limit close contact with other people. Use proper hygiene. Follow the advice of public health professionals. Be conscientious of your part in all of this, because we need everyone to buy in and do their part to defeat this virus.
Our collective failures have left us in a terrible bind. It's up to us to get on a better path.
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