Schools Will Close Again

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As coronavirus numbers surge in some areas and hold steady or dip in others, it’s easy to forget where we started. The bigger the numbers get, the less they seem to shock us. Remember, just two months ago, when the New York Times created this graphic to help us feel the impact of the unimaginable milestone of 100,000 U.S. deaths? Since then, we’ve added nearly 60,000 more deaths, and we are quickly approaching five million confirmed cases.

Yesterday morning, as I have done every morning since this pandemic started, I scanned my local newspaper for the latest case numbers in my state (Pennsylvania) and my area (the Lehigh Valley, which is north of Philadelphia and borders New Jersey). For the first day since March, Pennsylvania reported no new deaths. The state added 565 new cases, including only about seven in my area. This area was a hot spot early on, given our proximity to Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City.

Those numbers felt so low to me (hell, Florida logged 10 times that on the same day) that I thought, for the briefest of moments: Maybe it’ll be okay when school reopens. Which got me wondering… how many cases did Pennsylvania have when the governor shut down all K-12 public schools across the state back in mid-March? I had to look up : 33.

That’s 33 confirmed cases in the entire state- and zero deaths. And still we would become a hot spot, still our numbers would soar for weeks and months. Five hundred sixty-five cases isn’t a safe number; it’s 532 more cases than what made us panic the first time around.

It’s not a matter of if schools will close up again this fall; it’s a matter of when.

How do I know this? Because we all know this. We know our kids need to go to school, to be around their peers, to be active in sports and band and music. And we also know it’ll only be a matter of weeks or days or, in the case of at least one school so far, mere hours before the positive test results start flowing in and we all say, “Well, we knew that wasn’t going to last.”

Also, we have to reopen schools because of the disparity in access to the technology needed to complete virtual classes. We have to open for all the kids who depends on school-based nutrition programs, as well as specialized learning services, or behavioral, emotional or mental health services. We have to open so parents can work.

We feel we have to try this, even as we know it will fail, even though we know people will die because of it. As Executive Editor Adrienne LaFrance reports for The Atlantic:

“This push to open schools is guaranteed to fail,” says Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and molecular virologist, and the dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. I’ve been corresponding with Hotez, and with several epidemiologists, over the course of the pandemic, and have noticed a starkness in their views in recent weeks. “The social-distancing expectations and mask requirements for the lower grades are unrealistic,” Hotez told me. “In communities with high transmission, it’s inevitable that COVID-19 will enter the schools. Within two weeks of opening schools in communities with high virus transmission, teachers will become ill. All it will take is for a single teacher to become hospitalized with COVID and everything will shut down.”

We know more now about how the virus spreads than we did back in March and April when we were still stressing over whether to sanitize our groceries and if we could stop touching our faces. Now we know that our safety, and the safety of our kids and the school staff, depend not just on the precautions we take but on the precautions everyone takes. And a dude near my town recently shot at a cigar store clerk (and eventually at police officers) because he wanted to pick out his stogies sans-mask, so my confidence in the general public is pretty thin.

Even so, as much as we know now about how essential masks and physical distancing are, and how avoiding crowds and enclosed spaces is key, there is still so much we don’t know. We love to cling to the belief that kids are generally low risk if they become infected or that younger children don’t spread it as much as older ones and adults, but because we shut down schools so early (as we should have), we don’t really know what happens when a large population of kids are potentially exposed all at once. And this virus hasn’t existed long enough for us to know the long-term consequences for someone who had even a mild case of it.

As careful as our schools try to be, as much as we remind our kids why masks are important, and as much as our teachers try to keep their distance and sanitize all the things while also, you know, teaching, this isn’t going to work.

So brace yourself now. If your district still plans to re-open in person, even on a hybrid schedule, and even with all the possible precautions in place: it’s temporary. Your school is going to close again, and it will be soon.