OPINION: Leave school reopenings to those who know what they’re doing

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category icon COVID-19 coverage, Editorials, Opinion

If there’s one place Camas shines, it’s in the collaborative efforts that go into pretty much every decision impacting its highly regarded school district’s students, families and staff.

Whether it’s going out for a multi-million-dollar construction bond; formulating an equity program that examines race, gender, sexual identity, special education and socio-economics as influences on students’ success; figuring out the best way to implement a new schedule that allows teens to get more sleep in the early morning; or even revamping an historic theater, the school district always seeks input from a broad range of stakeholders. 

That same philosophy has guided the district through the recent COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent school shutdowns. 

In just three months, the district has collected more than 8,000 viewpoints from students, staff, families and community members — including more than 700 views shared on the crowdsourcing platform ThoughtExchange, over 1,200 thoughts through virtual town hall meetings on YouTube; at least 6,500 viewpoints collected via social-emotional well-being and fall reopening surveys; and more than 700 thoughts shared in one-on-one exchanges and through district volunteers. 

I don’t know about other professions, but in the world of newspapers, this type of thoughtful information gathering and reflection isn’t even possible. Around here, we’re lucky if three sources return our calls and if we have more than four hours to cobble an entire article together. So we’re often flabbergasted by the sheer amount of information flowing through the Camas School District’s workgroups, committees and school board. 

The same holds true for the state’s recently released plan for reopening Washington’s K-12 public and private schools in the fall amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

This 59-page report contains several months’ worth of input from the Reopening Washington Schools 2020 Workgroup — a group that included more than 120 teachers, students, parents, elected officials and community members from around the state.

Among those 120-plus workgroup members was Camas’ own Amy Campbell, a special education teacher at Helen Baller Elementary School who earned the state’s coveted “2020 Teacher of the Year” award.

The amount of work and compromise that had to go into this document is mind-boggling. A quote by the Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco, which Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell used in his June 24 virtual town hall, sums it up nicely: “As the man (referring to American cultural critic H.L. Mencken) said, for every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s wrong.” 

There was never going to be any simple solution when it came to COVID-19. 

After all, we’re talking about a new virus no one seems to fully grasp yet. 

In February and March, most research pointed to the novel coronavirus being a respiratory disease that was mostly harmful to older people and those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and chronic kidney conditions. Younger people, we were told, would likely have very mild cases and might not even show symptoms. 

This is what most public health organizations and media reports said in March: “… symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Most people (about 80 percent) recover from the disease without needing special treatment, and for the majority – especially for children and young adults – illness due to COVID-19 is generally minor.”

By May, that story had changed. Now, medical professionals and researchers were reporting that even younger COVID-19 patients were at increased risk of having blood clots, strokes and heart attacks. Oh, and, by the way, children might get a rare and sometimes fatal inflammatory disease after being infected by COVID-19. 

Over the past few weeks we’ve learned that our country’s rapid push to reopen — in many cases before COVID-19 cases had even hit their peak — has led to a situation that may prove untenable, with cases climbing rapidly throughout the country and maxing out hospital intensive care systems in Florida, Texas and Arizona, three Republican-led states that fought to reopen without proper testing and contact-tracing protocols in place. 

This week brought even more disheartening news: 

  • Scientists now believe COVID-19 could lead to a rash of neurological problems, including dementia and strokes, even in people who had “mild” cases of the novel coronavirus;
  • New research is proving that the virus may hang in the air for several hours and infect people passing by, especially inside areas that are not well-ventilated; and 
  • The latest antibody studies show “herd immunity” may not be achievable. “Despite the high impact of Covid-19 in Spain, prevalence estimates remain low and are clearly insufficient to provide herd immunity,” researchers reported in an article published in the July 6 Lancet medical journal. “This cannot be achieved without accepting the collateral damage of many deaths in the susceptible population and overburdening of health systems. In this situation, social distance measures and efforts to identify and isolate new cases and their contacts are imperative for future epidemic control.”

Despite mounting evidence that COVID-19 is a far more serious disease than any of us could have predicted four months ago, the president of our nation and his most trusted advisors are acting as if the novel coronavirus is not skyrocketing and that we are not, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said this week “knee-deep in the first wave” of COVID-19 and that the 50,000 new COVID-19 cases our nation is now experiencing on a daily basis is “a serious situation that we have to address immediately.”

In fact, just this week, Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos demanded schools across the country must fully reopen without remote options or flexible distance-learning days. 

Trump, of course, used his Twitter bully pulpit to address an issue he clearly has no grasp on, warning that he would withhold federal funds from school districts that didn’t obey his dictator-like demands. 

In a conference call with governors held this week, DeVos, as reported by the Associated Press, told state leaders: “Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools need to open, it’s a matter of how. School(s) must reopen, they must be fully operational. And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.”

She added that “fully operational” meant having in-person classes. 

A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said, according to the AP’s report.

Trump, of course, pushed the delusional envelope even more: 

In Germany, Denmark, Norway,  Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” the actual president of the United States of America tweeted Wednesday morning. 

No matter that Germany, Denmark, Norway and (to a lesser extent due to its initial experimentation with “herd immunity”) Sweden have all been able to keep COVID-19 in check while the United States is on a collision course with the virus. No matter that as much as 90 percent of school funding comes from state and local sources. No, Trump didn’t get his own way (i.e. convince state education leaders that the virus will somehow magically disappear in a few weeks) so he did what any bully does when challenged by facts and thoughtful conversation: he blustered and yelled and lied and made empty threats.

We should all be tired and weary of this behavior by now. Somehow, though, polls still show that more than 40 percent of Americans think the president is doing a good job. 

We would argue that it is the people behind efforts like the state’s school reopening workgroup — people like Camas teacher Amy Campbell — and those who are consistently involved in helping the Camas School District develop thoughtful, research-based programs and guidelines who are the ones “doing a good job.” 

We will trust these folks to help decide what is best for local schools, teachers, students and the community. That may mean students will only be in-person for a few days a week. It may even mean schools need to swiftly transition again to a fully remote environment if local COVID-19 cases continue to climb. 

We will get through this, but only if we understand that the decisions about school reopenings and COVID-19 are best left to the educators, school staff, students and families being asked to risk their own physical health; as well as the public health officials who must consider constantly changing research when making their recommendations. 

These decisions should not be in the hands of one man and certainly not in the hands of a man who has proven time and time again that he is lying about the COVID-19 pandemic and threatening the health of our entire nation.