Coronavirus spread threatens to overwhelm plans to reopen school

WASHINGTON – As calls from the White House to completely reopen schools grow louder, evidence continues to accumulate to show that the scenario is unlikely to happen, at least not on the national scale that President Donald Trump wants. That’s not because state and local officials aren’t trying, but because the spread of the virus is beginning to overwhelm even the best-planned plans.

Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, for example, had been working on a plan to reopen schools in August as part of a long and delicate process. But now that the virus is emerging across Texas, the outbreak may make the decision for him.

“Initially I thought we would be ready, but I’m starting to have second thoughts,” Hinojosa told MSNBC’s Garret Haake last week. “Our parents have turned, over 50 percent of them now say they don’t want to come, and we are hearing loud and clear from our employees, especially our teachers, who have a lot of concerns about how we can get this out.”

Their experience could be a preview of what’s to come for many school districts.

Public health experts, school officials and teacher unions warn that any proposal for a physical reopening is likely to depend on containing the wider spread of the virus outside the classroom.

“I think it becomes difficult or impossible in areas with very high rates of infection,” said Joshua Sharfstein, deputy dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins University and advocate for reopening schools. “People will just get sick in the community and bring them to school. It will be very damaging to the ability to remain open.”

With cases rapidly increasing in much of the country, even states and districts with the most well-designed and aggressive reopening plans could be whistling beyond the empty schoolyard, if that’s the case.

San Diego, which planned to open five days a week, announced Monday that it would only offer online learning thanks to the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Los Angeles will do the same.

Officials in Nashville and Atlanta have also announced that the school year will begin online due to their own coronavirus increases. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam warned that school districts, some of which are already adopting hybrid plans, will not reopen if the state cannot control infections.

This presents obstacles to President Trump’s belated fight to open schools, which he has so far pursued by demanding that the Centers for Disease Control reduce their safety guidelines and threaten schools that fail to open with some form of financial punishment.

Even as Texas state officials move forward with a plan to demand that all schools reopen full-time, for example, Governor Greg Abbott warned that “if we continue to see how COVID is spreading the way it is now it may be necessary to use that flexibility and use online learning. ” State guidance materials warn schools to design plans for “intermittent closure” if outbreaks occur.

CDC offers some guidance to schools on how to isolate students or staff if they get sick, but if parents remove their children from class in large numbers in favor of a remote learning option, that could effectively nullify reopens. even if they continue on paper.

Both the worsening pandemic and Trump’s demands threaten to accelerate the trend by increasing anxiety about health conditions in schools. In Texas, a June survey by the University of Texas / Texas Policy Project found that 65 percent of respondents still viewed schools as “unsafe” for students.

“For me, the goal is not just to open, but to stay open,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, former CDC director, on MSNBC. “If we open for a week or two and we have to shut the nation down again, it would be a much worse parody for our nation’s young children.”

Keeping the masters on board with the reopening amid a series of furious outbreaks is also likely to be a struggle. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, warned of a possible exodus of teachers who retire, resign or leave if they decide that conditions are unsafe.

Some officials affiliated with the Trump administration have notably heeded their reopening requests with disclaimers that dismissing the cases is a critical step.

“The first thing we must do is control the virus,” White House testing czar Admiral Brett Giroir, who called for the reopening of schools, said on ABC News on Sunday. “When we have the virus under control, we can really think about how to put children back in the classroom.”

While the White House has not presented a clear alternative to CDC guidelines nor has it committed to funding new security measures, many outside health officials have argued that the physical reopening of schools should be the nation’s top priority. given the immense tension, even the partial closure of families.

Experts have proposed a number of potential steps to get there, from isolating groups of students to prevent large outbreaks, installing partitions around desks, bundling staff tests for early infections, or hiring aides to support teachers.

The White House has frequently cited recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, to try to reopen 5 days a week in schools.

But the AAP, apparently alarmed by Trump’s approach, issued a joint statement with national teacher unions and the Association of School Superintendents on Friday warning that any approach to schools should follow public health guidance and gain acceptance from the public. local parents and teachers.

Critically, they cautioned that reopening plans should be scrapped if the outbreak becomes too severe.

“Schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be forced to reopen against the judgment of local experts,” they wrote.

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