I want to express my gratitude to the superintendents and school boards of all three of our county school systems, but especially to our Montgomery County Health Department. At the recommendation of Dr. Douglas, our schools will be taking strong steps to keep our community safer during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, while still providing in-school instruction to our kids that is so critical for their education. As of Monday morning, I wasn’t going to send my kids back under the proposed “normal” looking schedule, but that changed in a matter of hours after the new re-entry plans were announced. Now, I’m thrilled to say that we can responsibly send them back to school.
On Monday, all three school corporations issued their revised re-entry plan for the middle schools and high schools, which largely reversed their previous announcements (except for elementary schools, which for better or worse were not included). Instead of opening schools in a mostly “business as usual” manner, they adopted a “hybrid schedule” that will drastically reduce the potential for student and staff exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
I spoke with the administrations of North Montgomery middle and high schools, where my three children attend. Their plan is to provide classroom instruction every other day, with remote learning in between. This will expose students and staff to about half of the school population AND half as often, effectively reducing potential exposure by 75%. Class sizes will be much smaller, allowing the room needed for proper social distancing. Masks will be required under most circumstances. “Face forward” seating and one-way hallways will help reduce face-to-face coughing and sneezing. Desk wipe-downs each period and assigned seating will minimize potential surface spread of the virus. The plans of the other school systems appear to be very similar.
In short, our county middle schools and high schools will be much safer places for students and staff. And just as importantly, our schools will be a much smaller risk as transmission vectors for spreading COVID-19 into the community.
And not just COVID-19. We are moving into the cold and flu season, and these precautions will certainly help reduce the spread of those germs, too. From a community standpoint, this is significant. If the hospital beds are filled up or the hospitals are understaffed due to COVID, then it doesn’t matter which germ makes you critically ill.
This is an important move at a time when the number of new infections in Indiana is at an all-time high, and hospitalizations and deaths are back on the rise. It’s true that Montgomery County, like other farming communities, continues to have a fairly low viral load. We are protected by our “rural bubble.” However, we have also seen over the last several months how an overly optimistic, laissez-faire or dismissive attitude has resulted in hundreds of thousands of additional infections, tens of thousands more dead Americans, and prolonged damage to family incomes, businesses and the economy. It’s time to learn from our mistakes and to respond proportionally to the seriousness of the pandemic.
Some people may still object to what they see as overly strict measures being taken by our schools. “Our kids need a social life and a routine.” Certainly, so long as it is done responsibly. The hybrid plan is a great balance between fighting the virus and getting our kids back in the classroom.
Another point that is often raised, “Schools in other countries were able to reopen, so we should be able to do it, too.” However, the per-capita infection rate was much lower in those countries than it currently is in the U.S., and their infection rates where decreasing. The situation is the opposite here. Also, many of those countries took strong safety precautions. And yet, the jury is still out on some of those countries — it’s still not clear how “safe” it really was to go back to school, as some infection outbreaks did occur.
Then there’s the argument that, “kids don’t get seriously ill from it and don’t pass on the virus as easily.” The best and most recent research says, “well …. yes and no.” COVID-19 in youth is usually benign; however, kids with pre-existing conditions like asthma or heart problems are more likely to end up in the hospital. According to CDC data, children ages 0 to 18 account for 7% of COVID infections, they account for about 1% of the hospitalizations, and only about 0.1% of deaths.
Still, this is a new virus, and we should be responsibly concerned about infections in all age groups. COVID-19 can be more than just a lung infection and can be far more serious than the cold or flu. It can scar the lungs. It can directly attack heart muscle. COVID patients sometimes have an overactive immune response that causes additional damage to the lungs, heart, and kidneys. It can cause blood clots that may lead to a stroke. Damage to the nervous system is also not uncommon, resulting in impaired cognitive function and hallucinations. Some people are also experiencing PTSD symptoms. A small number of infected kids, after the acute symptoms have passed, end up with “multi-system inflammatory syndrome”, a poorly understood condition that impacts multiple bodily systems and causes severe illness. So, it’s not just about surviving this disease; an important question remains about how well a person will live afterwards. The long-term and lifetime effects of COVID-19 in both kids and adults are unknown and should not be dismissed.
But the idea that kids don’t spread the virus is simply wrong, or at best unclear. According to the most recent comprehensive studies, children ten and older appear to spread it as effectively as adults. The spread rate is unclear for kids under ten, at least in part, because they tend to be less social and less exposed to other people. Without strong precautions, like those being instituted by our Montgomery County schools, schools have a strong potential of becoming a big source of viral spread. And as COVID-19 has an average fatality rate of 8.6% among those 50 years and older, that is a really big deal.
Beating this virus, in theory, is simple. If it can’t spread, it dies. Yet today, almost six months into this pandemic, America is losing to the virus. In the ongoing absence of a strong and clear federal response, it’s up to our local and state leaders to step up, make the smart choices, and take responsibility for stopping the spread.
So, I’m grateful to our schools for their display of leadership and their decision to listen to scientific consensus and the best available data. I’m especially grateful to the Montgomery County Health Department for leading the way in this effort. I hope to see more of this type of leadership from businesses and government. Because after all, our “rural bubble” won’t keep Montgomery County safe forever.