The Health 202: To open schools in the fall or not: That is one pressing coronavirus question

with Paulina Firozi

Sharp divisions over where Americans kids should be taught this fall are emerging among doctors, schools and teachers’ unions.

It’s a hugely emotional and fraught topic as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen in the United States. Parents worry about not being able to return to their jobs because of kids stuck at home, teachers fret about getting ill in the classroom and health professionals are anxious about the educational and emotional effects on kids, especially those in disadvantaged homes.

“School communities desperate for normalcy are hoping that the new school year will be more stable than the last, when the coronavirus forced schools to close and launch remote learning overnight,” The Post’s Valerie Strauss writes. “But that seems like wishful thinking, as 2020-2021 is shaping up to be even more problematic.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging schools to prioritize students learning while “physically present in school.” Keeping children away from school – and the social services many access there – could be more risky for kids than potentially exposing them to a virus that is largely bypassing them, the AAP said in a statement that garnered widespread attention this week.

“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020,” the statement said.

Yet a handful of school districts have announced major shifts away from in-classroom learning for the fall. 

Hundreds more around the nation are grappling with weighty decisions of whether and how to bring kids back to elementary, middle and high schools in two months or less.

Fairfax County in Virginia, which includes one of the largest school districts, is asking parents to choose between 100 percent virtual learning or part-time in-person schooling in the fall, my colleague Hannah Natanson reported. Virginia’s Loudoun County approved a similar plan this week.

“Under the plan endorsed Monday, the amount of in-person schooling the Northern Virginia district of 84,000 offers will differ depending on which phase of Gov. Ralph Northam’s reopening process the state has entered by the time school starts,” Hannah writes.

Virginia transitioned to Phase 3 of its reopening yesterday, meaning child-care centers can reopen and the cap on social gatherings will rise to 250. If the state is still in Phase 3 by the time school begins, families who selected the hybrid option will send their kids to school just two days a week. 

But if the state slides back to Phase 2, “all students will be required to learn 100 percent virtually except for students with disabilities, English-language learners and students in prekindergarten through third grade,” Hannah reports.

Schools in other states are also dealing with an uncertain future. In Arizona, which is daily hitting new highs in cases, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) ordered bars, gyms, movie theaters and water parks to shut down for at least 30 days and ordered public schools to delay the start of classes until Aug. 17.

Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction:

Teachers’ unions aren’t happy with a hybrid approach.

Teachers in Fairfax County say they’ll refuse to teach in-person until the district revises its strategy. “The teachers’ resistance previews the kind of backlash administrators throughout the country may encounter as they ask their workforce to return to school hallways,” Hannah writes.

NEA President Lily Eskelson Garcia seemed to downplay the AAP guidance, telling me she feels people “misinterpreted” it to mean schools should prioritize reopening over any other considerations.

“I’ll respond and I’ll try to keep the four letter words out,” she said, when asked to respond to the group’s statement.

Garcia feels teachers “are the last ones” being consulted as schools are drawing up reopening plans. She worries teachers will be asked to do more with fewer resources – because districts are seeing revenue dry up due to the lockdowns – and won’t be provided with adequate supplies to protect themselves from the virus.

And the argument that parents will be unable to return to work because their kids are at home is a “nonstarter,” she said.

“I don’t freaking care about getting the parents back to work,” Garcia said. “I care about opening a school carefully so those kids have a decent education.”

Yet scientific research – and outcomes in other countries – suggests sending kids back to school may be low risk.

In an extensive statement that recommended measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, the AAP noted children and teenagers are far less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease. Indeed, children ages 5-17 have so far accounted for fewer than 0.1 percent of U.S. deaths from covid-19 and 4.3 percent of known cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine recently found children were 35 to 60 percent less susceptible to coronavirus infection than adults 20 and over, writing that “interventions aimed at children might have a relatively small impact on reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”

Some research has also suggested – although more is needed – that kids spread the virus to others less frequently than their adult counterparts. If that bears out, teachers may be at less risk of contracting the virus in the classroom than previously thought.

And some European countries didn’t see significant increases in new cases when they began sending children back to school in April and early May. Denmark, Austria and Germany haven’t reported spikes due to school reopenings, which include mandates around mask-wearing and social distancing.

Reopening schools may bring outsized benefits.

“Schools should be prioritized,” Boston University epidemiologist Helen Jenkins and Harvard School of Public Health professor William Hanage wrote in an op-ed for The Post. 

Jenkins and Hanage argue that because schools are so crucial to the well-being of children, reopening them should be prioritized. In order to slow transmission of the virus so that schools can open safely, stricter rules should be imposed right now on places like restaurants and stores, they write.

“Long school closures during the novel coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated existing inequalities: Children whose parents can invest in a computer and an expensive online learning program will fall behind less than others whose parents cannot, or those who are working essential jobs that mean it’s impossible to support home schooling,” the pair argued.

Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at University of Southern California:

Dear readers: The Health 202 won’t be publishing tomorrow in honor of Independence Day. Have a safe and relaxing holiday weekend, and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: Coronavirus infections surged nearly 50 percent last month.

“More than 800,000 new cases were reported across the country last month, led by Florida, Arizona, Texas and California — bringing the nation’s officially reported total to just over 2.6 million,” The Post’s Anne Gearan, Derek Hawkins and Siobhan O’Grady report.

The virus is particularly spreading in the South and Southwest. “More than 52,000 new cases were reported in the United States on Wednesday, the highest total since the start of the pandemic,” my colleagues write. “Record-shattering numbers of new cases were reported Wednesday in six states — California, Georgia, Texas, Alaska, North Carolina and Arizona.”

California reported 110 new deaths yesterday, more than any other state. Its governor, Gavin Newsom (D), ordered 19 counties to shut down all indoor services and activities before the holiday weekend, meaning that bars, restaurants and other businesses will remain open only outside.

“Newsom’s order was the latest step the governor has taken to impose new rules on counties that, in late spring, appeared to have the virus largely under control,” they write. “While it names only a minority of California’s 58 counties, the reclosing order will affect nearly 75 percent of the state’s residents, including those who live in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and the East Bay area.”

Other governors are also ramping up restrictions. “Pennsylvania ordered protective masks to be worn in public, and New York City delayed the planned loosening of restrictions on indoor dining. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) ordered the end of indoor service at bars through most of the state’s lower region, citing a spike in cases among younger people,” Anne, Derek and Siobhan write.

Caitlin Rivers, epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security:

OOF: Trump appears to back another round of stimulus payments to millions of Americans.

But his jumbled remarks on a Fox Business interview yesterday left his position somewhat unclear, The Post’s Jeff Stein reports.

“There are sharp divisions among Republicans about whether to approve a second round of $1,200 payments, and the president’s own aides haven’t reached a consensus,” Jeff writes. “The first round of payments, approved in late March, went to more than 150 million American households.”

Asked by Fox Business if he supports “another round of direct payments for individuals,” the president said: “I do. I support it. But it has to be done properly. And I support actually larger numbers than the Democrats. But it’s got to be done properly.”

But then, Trump appeared to highlight concerns that higher unemployment insurance payments could discourage Americans to return to the labor market. “That made it unclear if the president was expressing support for another round of direct stimulus payments, or some other form of federal help for individual taxpayers,” Jeff writes.

“We had something where they wanted where it gave you a disincentive to work last time. And it was still money going to people and helping people, so I was all for that. But we want to create a very great incentive to work. So we’re working on that, and I’m sure we’ll all come together,” the president said, according to a transcript provided by Fox Business.

As for the virus, Trump remarked in the same interview: “I think we’re going to be very good with the coronavirus,” Trump said. “I think that, at some point, that’s going to sort of disappear, I hope.”

OUCH: A different strain of covid-19 now circulating in Beijing may have originated in South or Southeast Asia.

That’s according to preliminary findings by Harvard researchers who looked at the viral strain which infected more than 300 people in Beijing last month, Reuters reports. The new strain is raining concerns about China’s vulnerability to a second wave of infections.

“The Harvard study, published in the preprint website on Tuesday and which still has to be peer-reviewed, took three of the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences collected in Beijing last month and compared them to 7,643 samples worldwide,” Reuters writes.

“The three genomes showed the greatest resemblance to cases in Europe from February to May, and to cases in South and Southeast Asia from May to June,” per Reuters. “They were also similar to a small number of infections seen in China in March, suggesting the strain could have appeared first in China and then returned to the country three months later, the authors said.”

“As the most recent cases in these branches are almost exclusively from South(east) Asia, this could suggest that the new cases in Beijing were re-introduced by transmissions from South(east) Asia,” the researchers wrote.

Sugar rush

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