As COVID-19 surges, the idea of reopening schools is becoming very dangerous

July 16, 2020 12:20 am

Stock photo from Getty Images.

As the school year draws near, soaring COVID-19 cases in Ohio have raised doubts in some areas about whether public schools will be able to reopen on schedule. 

School districts are set to roll out plans to start the school year, most involving combinations of classroom and remote learning. In my neck of the woods in Cuyahoga County, no districts have called off reopening schools as of Tuesday. Yet as Cuyahoga approaches the state’s highest level of public health emergency, some district officials are privately bracing for the possibility of online education only. 

Nobody wants to hear that. But we botched pandemic management 101. Now schools are in an impossible situation.

For that, there are many people to thank: Ohio Republican lawmakers who ignored reality, dismissed experts, downplayed the threat and encouraged Ohioans to blow off public health warnings. The president and Fox News. Anti-mask bullies who berate hapless store clerks. Misguided protesters who carried weapons to state capitals. And the selfish many who pack bars and party on because no infectious virus is going to stop their good time. Cheers to them. That’s why your kids might be home from school in August.

COVID-19 is spreading at the fastest pace yet. Meanwhile, schools are being pressured to reopen by the very same leaders who sabotaged efforts to keep us safe.

Lots of parents, already stressed to the brink, won’t be happy if their schools remain closed. Surveys in my district and elsewhere have shown a majority of parents want their kids in school. I have a kid in high school. To me, the question is simple: Can schools reopen safely? Nobody can say yes. Nobody. If you live in a community where COVID-19 is spreading fast, reopening next month looks like a gamble at best.

Already several large districts — Los Angeles, San Diego and Atlanta — said this week they would hold online classes only this fall because COVID-19 is spreading out of control. Columbus schools decided to do the same for high school students. No doubt other dominoes will fall.

You can’t expect school districts to manage this fiasco on their own. They aren’t equipped. The idea that schools can keep everyone six feet apart is a joke. Even if they could, who takes care of screening everyone for symptoms? What happens when someone in the building is sick with COVID-19? We don’t know how the virus spreads among young people. Some evidence suggests children are less likely to be infected and to infect others. But that’s uncertain. And what about staff? Best practices for keeping students and staff safe haven’t been established. Education advocacy groups say schools nationally would need more than $200 billion to reopen safely. 

DeWine’s guidelines for reopening schools didn’t offer much that school districts didn’t already know. It would be helpful, for instance, if the state put forth requirements about social distancing in order for schools to open. But instead, vague guidelines suggest only that schools “try when possible” to maintain social distancing. That’s weak tea.

A teacher friend, David Lee Morgan Jr., said he’s eager to return to the classroom, but he’s anxious about safety. He teaches English and journalism at Massillon Washington High School in Stark County. Morgan worries about bringing the virus home to his wife, Jill, whose immune system is compromised because of multiple sclerosis.

“My wife could be affected by me being affected,” he said. “I have to worry about what precautions are being taken.”

He’s also concerned about his students. Remote learning doesn’t give kids what they need educationally, socially or emotionally. 

“Speaking for me and other teachers, we love our kids,” he said. “I have kids coming to my class to eat lunch with me, and we just have conversation. That’s what I miss, that close interaction.”

Many teachers at the start of this week were still waiting to hear what plans are for the school year.

Parents have a right to be hacked off. But don’t take it out your local school officials. If you need someone to scream at, try Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, (614) 466-2500. 

It was Householder’s caucus that declared the pandemic over in June, and pushed Gov. DeWine to revoke state health orders.

“Ohio smashed the curve long ago,” they wrote in a letter to DeWine. “Mission accomplished!” 

Rep. Candice Keller was among the signers. Last week, she posted on Facebook a photo of her unmasked face outside a Walgreens, bragging about defying Butler County’s mask mandate. “Be brave. Try it. You’ll like it,” she wrote. 

Her selfie oozes with smugness of an overconfident, not-too-bright person. It illustrates perfectly why Ohio is in deep trouble.

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Harlan Spector
Harlan Spector

Harlan Spector is a Northeast Ohio writer focused on health care and other topics. He has decades of journalism experience as a former Cleveland Plain Dealer editor and enterprise reporter who covered health and medicine, government, social services, education and other areas. Follow Harlan on Twitter @harspector.