OPINION: Without push for COVID prevention, community likely to remain divided

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category icon COVID-19 coverage, Editorials, Opinion

The presidential election is over, but the country — and even our own small piece of Southwest Washington — is still very much a house divided. 

This is especially true when it comes to the issue of bringing children back to school during a global pandemic that has killed nearly 1.3 million people in just 10 months and become the United States’ third-leading cause of death. 

As we reported in today’s Post-Record, and have been reporting for the past few months, parents in Camas and Washougal are deeply divided when it comes to reopening local schools. 

Many parents, especially those in the Camas School District — a district long touted for its high-level academics and quality extracurricular offerings — have been pushing district leaders to buck public health recommendations and reopen sooner rather than later, regardless of rapidly climbing COVID-19 numbers and hospitalizations.

Those parents often point to research showing that other states and countries have had success containing COVID-19 outbreaks within their reopened school systems. They rightfully worry about the emotional wellbeing of students who have been in an isolated, remote-learning environment for more than half the year. And they highlight research showing there are specific preventative measures — including the consistent and correct use of face coverings, physical distancing, keeping students in small groups throughout the day, proper ventilation and sanitization — that can make school safe for students and staff during the pandemic. 

There are some valid concerns behind these parents’ push to reopen the schools. 

As Camas Assistant Superintendent Charlene Williams noted during the Oct. 26 school board meeting, many students are having trouble academically and socially-emotionally during this remote-only phase: the number of students with failing grades in one or more classes at this point in the school year has increased more than 65 percent, jumping from about 300 students to roughly 500 students; and there has been a reported decrease in student attendance rates throughout the district. 

And worrying about children’s social-emotional health is also a valid concern during a pandemic that has isolated so many of us and kept young people away from their peers for nearly a year. 

But while all of these concerns are justified — and while all parents would rather see their children living a “normal” life, playing with friends, forming social bonds with their peers, meeting with their teachers and school counselors in person, enjoying their free time on the playground, and spending way less time staring at a screen — there is no question that reopening schools while Clark County’s COVID-19 numbers continue to skyrocket is a dangerous proposition for teachers, staff, families, the community and even the students themselves. 

Although much of the research seems to show that young children do not easily spread COVID-19 and that schools are rarely the sites of “superspreader” events, we have already seen instances of coronavirus transmission inside local schools — including two students and a staff member exposed to the virus at a private Washougal school and another staff member exposed at a public Washougal elementary school — so we already know, even with a very small number of students inside classrooms, that reopening schools too soon could be risky for the teachers and staff members who have no choice but to return to work. 

School board members are right to heed public health experts’ advice and only reopen classrooms for a mix of in-person and remote learning after the community manages to slow its spread of COVID-19.

And if this editorial space is starting to sound like a broken record, we apologize, but the fact remains that the citizens of Clark County know exactly how to get those transmission rates back down and allow our schools to safely reopen. 

We have all been told a thousand times that we need to correctly wear a proper face covering (over the mouth and nose, people) when we are in public, and yet it is still not uncommon to walk into local retail shops or grocery stores and see at least one or two people refusing to wear their masks and totally getting away with endangering everyone around them.

We also have been told that we should no longer be meeting in small groups with non-household members if we want to see our local COVID-19 transmission rates drop. As state health officials warned just this week, “any in-person gathering is risky” and another stay-home order, which would harm our local economy and force more people to isolate over the dark winter months, may soon be on the table if COVID rates do not start falling again in Washington state. 

The local numbers, by the way, do not look good. 

Clark County Public Health records the number of COVID-19 positive cases over a 14-day period, per 100,000 residents. To safely reopen our schools, public health experts agree we need to be at 75 cases per 100,000 or less for three consecutive weeks. 

We were hitting that target in August and early September. Then our numbers started climbing. By Oct. 5, we were firmly in the “high” transmission zone with 95.6 cases per 100,000. By Oct. 26, that number was at 123.85. This week, we are at 171.55 cases per 100,000 residents recorded over the past 14 days. 

We’ve heard school district and county public health leaders pushing for more adherence to mask mandates, physical distancing and other measures that will help bring our county’s transmission rates back into the low-to-moderate zone, but, for the most part, city leaders in Camas and Washougal have been silent on the issue except to promote the reopening of small businesses and restaurants. 

As we head into this third wave of the pandemic — with hospitalizations and deaths now steadily rising and some state officials, including those in Utah and Wisconsin, saying their hospital systems are “at capacity” and on the threshold of being overrun — we need local leaders who will push for much stricter adherence to mask mandates and a reduction of socializing with non-household members. 

Otherwise, there is no doubt that our COVID rates will continue to increase; local students will continue to be separated from their classrooms and peers; local people will continue to become ill and die from this virus; parents will continue to worry; and we will continue to be a community divided.