OPINION: Superintendents right to push for online school start

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category icon COVID-19 coverage, Editorials, Opinion

When the COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered schools in March, no one could have suspected that, five months later, local school superintendents would be pushing for an online start to the 2020-21 school year.

But here we are. The pandemic, which is now more widespread than it was in March, is claiming an average of 1,000 lives each day in the United States and is now, according to the White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, impacting both urban and rural areas.

“To everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune or protected from this virus,” Birx told CNN this week.

What’s more, the virus shows signs of claiming even more lives this fall. In late July, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who served under President Donald Trump, told MSNBC that the country is on a trajectory that results in 300,000 COVID-19 deaths by the end of the year.

If you can’t imagine what 300,000 people looks like, just visualize the combined populations of Vancouver and Beaverton, Oregon — and then add the entire population of Camas. As we now know, this number will include not only our elderly and infirm but also adults in the prime of their life as well as children, teens, pregnant women and dedicated health care professionals. As of June 6, COVID-19 had killed 600 U.S. health care workers, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, hospital administrators and nursing home workers.

Just as startling are the thousands of Americans who are considered “recovered” from COVID-19 who report they still suffer from horrendous health effects — including cardiovascular and neurological issues, scarred lungs, unbearable fatigue and blood clotting problems — from a novel coronavirus doctors and scientists are just beginning to understand.

In the midst of it all, sending children back to school, even with masks and social-distancing protocols in place, while trying to contain an airborne virus seems delusional at best.

We should all recognize by now that social gatherings in which the majority of people are not wearing masks have proven to be breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus. Having teachers, students and staff who show up to school after a weekend of gathering with family, friends or other community members — and not wearing masks — could prove disastrous in a school setting where we’re asking 5-year-olds who can barely sit still for more than 10 minutes to keep a face covering on all day.

At Georgia’s largest school district, for instance, 260 employees tested positive one day after attending in-person planning sessions to prepare for the new school year. Most of those cases, as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, were the results of social gatherings in the community. It is not yet known how many other employees or extended family members will become ill because of that one-day, in-school exposure.

Locally, the director of Clark County Public Health, Dr. Alan Melnick, has said the current data on COVID-19 in Southwest Washington makes it “just too dangerous” for students and teachers to return to in-person classrooms this fall, even with extensive social-distancing and mask mandates.

“Clark County Public Health supports school superintendents who have made the very difficult decision to recommend starting the 2020-21 school year online,” Melnick said last week.

Although we recognize that starting the school year online may put many families in a very tough position — particularly those who are lower-income, unable to work remotely or who have differently-abled children in need of more one-on-one, in-person support systems — we also believe the best way for our nation, state and community to curb the spread of COVID-19 is to pay attention to public health professionals like Melnick who are closely monitoring the data and numbers connected to local COVID-19 cases.

Teachers, district staff and local families should not have to worry they will be exposed to a disease that is now the No. 1 cause of daily deaths in the U.S., having overtaken cancer and heart disease.

That is why we also support the local superintendents’ push for an online start to the school year.