Opening Schools is Nuts

Posted on July 29, 2020

Once more, Donald Trump is politicizing the coronavirus. He and his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, are pushing to quickly open schools for regular in-person instruction. He even went so far as to rewrite the cautious recommendations of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control. The new document is called “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.”

The Trump recommendation is nuts.

COVID-19 is most dangerously transmitted through “superspreader” events, when a sizable number of people gather together indoors for an hour or more. This has happened at bars, restaurants, parties, conferences, churches and, of course, at Trump campaign events. In fact, Trump had to cancel campaign rallies and the Republican National Convention because it’s too dangerous to bring hundreds or thousands of people together during a deadly pandemic.

If schools open for in-person instruction in August or September, each school day would be a superspreader event.

There are about 50 million schoolchildren, 3.5 million teachers, and 1.5 million other adult staffers in public schools. On average, a school contains over 500 children and 50 adults. Each night these students and staffers go home to about 500 different households containing a total of about 1,750 people. Thus, every single day provides the opportunity for COVID-19 to spread from one or two people to dozens or hundreds.

It would be a massacre.

Trump thinks he’s just sacrificing the lives of teachers, which doesn’t concern him. And of course, we progressives care deeply about the health of both students and teachers. But the most important and persuasive reason to keep schools closed for now is that opening them threatens the lives of everyone in the community.

Before opening schools for in-person instruction, we need to first get the pandemic under control, as they have in most of the industrialized world. And if we didn’t have such an ignorant and amoral president, it wouldn’t be so hard.

In a matter of weeks, the U.S. could beat back COVID-19.

A coronavirus needs a host body to survive. Outside of a body, the virus deteriorates and dies rather quickly. If we stopped transmission of the virus from one person to another, the virus would be gone within three to six weeks – some infected people would die and the virus with it, and the rest would develop antibodies that would kill off the disease. We stop transmission and the coronavirus is gone. Or more realistically, we stop a great deal of transmission and the disease is brought under control. But how?

The COVID-19 virus is almost entirely transmitted when droplets expelled from the mouths or noses of infected people are inhaled by others. The droplets most commonly travel approximately one to six feet before falling to the ground, which is why six feet is the general rule for “social distancing.” Indoors, the circulation system may keep some tiny droplets airborne for longer periods and distances. (We should continue to wash hands, of course, but touching a surface is not a significant source of transmission.)

Masks very greatly reduce the quantity and size of coronavirus droplets sent into the air. If everyone wore a mask when in a public place indoors, on public transportation, or within six feet of someone outdoors (ten feet to be polite!), the infection would soon be very greatly reduced. And then we could talk about opening schools!

What’s that? You don’t think that will work because a large group of Americans won’t wear masks? Then why in the world do you think their children will wear them at school?

Perhaps you have questions or objections…

Q: Don’t we need to open schools to restart the economy?

A: The ONLY avenue to restarting the economy in a meaningful way is to get the pandemic under control. Opening schools will do the opposite.

Q: Is it true, as Trump says, that we can open schools because children are less susceptible to COVID and less likely to transmit the disease?

A: To be specific, Trump says school would be “totally safe,” which is totally wrong. The most comprehensive study of this question found that children over 10 are just as likely to contract and spread the virus as adults. Younger children are about half as likely to get the virus, which is still a lot. Younger children spread it, and many have died already.

Q: Can’t we use social distancing, plexiglass dividers and hand sanitizers to make schools safe?

A: We can’t even make empty-stadium Major League Baseball safe, even though they’re rich in resources and they’re all adults! It is unreasonable to believe that most schools – which have been short-staffed and underfunded for years – can somehow supply the plexiglass, masks and sanitizers to make a school anywhere near as safe as a grocery store. More important, it is unreasonable to believe that children will always stay apart, never touch each other, never take off their masks, and obey every word of a teacher’s instructions about health rules. Teens will not comply because they are teens; younger children just can’t do it hour after hour. And the kids are eating lunch (and often breakfast) for goodness sake, where masks can’t be worn, obviously. This cannot work.

Q: This is not fair to children and their parents! How did we get to this horrible place?

A: Yes, this is awful for everyone. We got here because of unprecedented bumbling and lying by Donald Trump and his minions including, of course, Betsy DeVos, who has done absolutely nothing to prepare schools for dealing with COVID-19. The leaders in almost every other country in the world have done better than they have. You should be angry; you should be frustrated. 150,000 Americans are dead and this Administration is on-target to kill at least 100,000 more.