One month from today, Arizona’s school bells could be ringing.
Think of it. Thousands upon thousands of children, headed back to school in crisp new shoes and crisp new masks, ready to breathe in knowledge while hopefully repelling a highly contagious virus that probably won’t kill them. Or their teachers. Or their parents.
Gov. Doug Ducey doesn’t sound overly concerned. While he’s still pondering whether to allow schools to reopen on Aug. 17, he said on Thursday that he’d feel comfortable sending his kids to school next month.
So would state Health Services Director Cara Christ.
“Kids are at low risk of transmission and outcomes …,” she said, during Thursday’s news conference. “I have noticed other detrimental impacts from my kids not being in school.”
Kids should not be guinea pigs or pawns
Count Dr. Stephen Kessler and his wife, Dr. Gladys Martin, as among the flabbergasted that physically reopening schools is even a possibility given the continued spread of COVID-19 in Arizona. In addition to being physicians, they are parents of school-age children in the Madison school district.
“I feel like and my wife feels like this has a lot of political undertones when our focus should be on public health and the health and well being of our students, the teachers and staff and our community,” he told me.
This week, the couple wrote a letter to Ducey, calling on him to close the schools for the first quarter of the school year and instead move to virtual learning.
To do otherwise, said their letter — signed by 84 doctors and nurse practitioners — would be “ill-advised and dangerous.”
“While the current literature seems to suggest that children may be less likely to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 than they do for traditional respiratory viruses such as influenza, the available data is very limited and is sometimes conflicting,” the letter said. “Moreover, virtually all of this research comes from areas with far less community spread than Arizona.
“Until this body of evidence is larger and more definitive, it is imperative to proceed with caution in regards to large gatherings of children, particularly in areas with high rates of community spread, limited testing, and poor contact tracing capabilities.”
Translation: Don’t use Arizona’s kids as guinea pigs or political pawns.
What 84 doctors want Ducey to do
The doctors are calling on Ducey to:
Immediately announce the cancellation of in-person classes for the first quarter so teachers and administrators can focus now on planning a “robust, virtual curriculum.”
“Any delay in announcing this closure will come at the expense of our children’s education,” the letter said.
Fully fund schools as if they were providing in-class instruction. In June, Ducey issued an order that requires schools to be physically open “at least the same number of days per week” as last year in order to receive full state funding.
“We understand the terrible predicament that school districts across the state currently face as a result of this executive order: choosing between the financial solvency of their district and the health of their students, staff and community,” the letter said. “No educator should be forced to make this choice.”
Provide “concrete, evidence-based metrics” to decide when it is safe to reopen schools and another set of metrics that would guide when to close them again in the event of a renewed spread of COVID-19.
Lobby the federal government to ensure that school districts are not penalized for moving to online instruction.
Should should reopen, just not now
President Donald Trump, with fewer than four months until Election Day, is desperate to move on from the coronavirus. He has threatened to withhold federal funding from any school district that does not open next month.
“When he says open, he means open in full, kids being able to attend each and every day in their school,” Trump spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Thursday. “The science should not stand in the way of this.”
She went on to call the U.S. an “outlier” among western nations when it comes back to getting kids back in school, adding “the science is on our side here.”
Kessler, however, says the science is still in its early days. There is “very little” in the way of formal studies about the impact of the virus on children, he said, and none about the impact of reopening schools in places like Arizona, where the disease continues to spread.
He worries not only about the impact on children but about the spread to their teachers and their parents and siblings.
“Most physicians I speak with do not think it’s a good idea to send children back to school given the uncontrolled COVID-19 in our community,” he told me. “There are those who disagree. But I think the fact that there is such a wide disparity of viewpoints should serve as a red flag. The issue is not at all clearly decided. The safety has certainly has not been fully established from my point of view.”
Kessler said he would send his children back to school if he lived in a place where there is “very low” spread, adequate testing and comprehensive contact tracing.
“I think, at some point, the children have to go back to school,” he said. “I just don’t think that time is now in Arizona.”
Reach Roberts at email@example.com.