Op-Ed I wrote that Seattle Times which refused to publish
We need to admit that these 3 months of education have by and large been a failure for a majority of students across the state of Washington. Northwest Evaluation Association estimates the learning loss at 30% for reading and 50% for mathematics. As these students are our state’s future, those estimates should scare all of us, especially if there are discussions about not opening schools this fall. We know that Continuous Learning 1.0 which is what OSPI has termed K-12 education this spring has been disastrous for our struggling students who were already behind, and now that gap has grown even wider for our English Language Learners, Special Education students, and homeless students. For many of our students, our schools provide much needed nutrition, mental health counseling, and a trusted adult to identify and protect our students from child abuse.
Our students need our schools to reopen to erase the gap in learning COVID-19 created and to begin the healing process that has impacted our students far beyond learning the core content. We can do this safely using the current evidence across the world and using Washington state data to serve as many students as we can with in-person learning. It has been debunked that children are “super spreaders” and it has been reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) that “asymptomatic” patients are not responsible for significant spread of COVID-19. It appears that the physiology of our youngest children may protect them through reduced ACE2 receptors that the virus needs to infect respiratory cells. Washington state data further supports this, with a rate of 52 per 100,000 residents age 0-9 in King County—one-tenth the incidence rate in adults.
The critical years that establish the foundation of learning for every student include preschool through 3rd grade when students learn to read. We should use our own data that shows we can safely educate our youngest students in classrooms. Let’s be honest, Zoom Kindergarten just isn’t that effective, and it’s not because our teachers aren’t trying, but it’s because it’s not developmentally appropriate. Effective screening practices for every staff member and every student every day, frequent cleaning of high contact surfaces, and hand hygiene will likely be enough to minimize spread of COVID-19 in our elementary schools even with traditional in-person school. Combine that with masking of every adult in the building and rapid testing and contact tracing, our staff at the elementary level should be able to lead our youngest students through a relatively normal educational experience. Denmark has had elementary schools open since mid-April with 90+% attendance and nationwide incidence and hospitalizations have decreased since schools reopened.
While I am advocating for broad reopening of our elementary schools in communities without actively spreading COVID-19, I do believe we need to take a more measured approach with our secondary schools. We currently don’t have data to know what age cut-off that the physiology of an adolescent is more like an adult and thus the risk of spread of COVID-19 would be more like an adult. Luckily, masking and distancing policies are more age-appropriate in our secondary schools. Starting the year with 25-50% of the middle school and high school student body in-person that includes targeted subgroups such as English Language Learners and Special Education students, along with children of Essential workers in the first 21 days and then steadily increasing to 100% would be allow school districts to assess any potential impact of COVID-19 on staff and students. Our teachers are Essential Workers and their children must be part of in-person learning so that our teachers can focus all their energy to educating our state’s students. These additional approaches in conjunction with the best practices for elementary schools noted above, should mitigate the risk of COVID-19 for our educators.
I’ve been on the front lines caring for COVID-19 patients before the Department of Health even recognized COVID-19 was spreading in our communities. Like teaching, caring for patients is a hands-on job, and in our state we did not have healthcare workers test positive in rates higher than community prevalence. Our hospitals have learned how to navigate the risk of COVID-19 with actively symptomatic patients. Therefore, our schools should be able to mitigate the risks for asymptomatic students and staff. With the knowledge we have about young children not being as susceptible to COVID-19, nor spreading it, and with WHO guidance that asymptomatic carriers do not generally spread COVID-19, we can mitigate the risk in our schools with robust screening practices for possible symptomatic students and staff and age-appropriate Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions. Our educators need to know that we can reopen and keep them safe. We should be performing COVID-19 serology screening on our educators now to identify baseline prevalence in communities across the state so we can validate that the reopening strategies our state uses, actually limits the risk of spread to our educators in successive waves.
My hope is that OSPI will issue broad guidelines modeled after British Columbia’s K-12 Education Restart Plan that have a menu of options based on community prevalence of COVID-19. How we do this should be left up to local districts because for some districts alternating weeks or alternating days might make more sense. Local districts know their students, teachers and community best and can partner other school districts and with their respective county Health Department to best plan to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Washington state Department of Health should focus on screening, contact tracing and testing protocols, not issue mandates about busing, recess, class sizes, distancing, or masking—without science and state data that supports any directive.
We know so much more about COVID-19 now, and we need to start talking about it so we can communicate better with our educators, our parents, our students, and our communities about safe reopening strategies. Our students need our professional educators to provide expert academic instruction, as well social emotional learning and supports. We will not be successful at eliminating the pandemic of systemic racism without opening our schools and educating our students about longstanding inequities and promoting a more just democracy. Safely reopening our schools will be essential to fully reopening our economy as many families count on our school systems to educate our students during the work day. In fact, we should be talking about an August start to our school year because we could be in school more days before an inevitable second wave this fall. While we may have more school closures ahead of us, I believe the Australian Prime Minister said it best that “we cannot allow our fear of going backwards, to stop us going forwards.” Our 1.5 million children in Washington state are counting on us.