Most Urgent Issue in Arizona: Back to School in the Era of COVID-19

As parents, students, and educators, with all their unique circumstances, contemplate returning to school, COVID-19 presents major challenges for K-12 education.

Other countries that have reopened schools successfully have much lower rates of community transmission than found in the United States, along with robust testing and contracting tracing programs. Even so, some of these schools have reported outbreaks.

This morning, Deborah Birx, the physician overseeing the White House coronavirus response, warned that the United States has entered a “new phase” of the pandemic and urged people to take extreme health precautions as infections and deaths rise sharply throughout the country.

“I want to be very clear what we’re seeing today is different from March and April,” Birx told CNN’s “State of the Union,” noting that cases were increasing in rural and urban areas. “It is extraordinarily widespread.”

Children infected with COVID-19 are more likely to be asymptomatic and less likely to experience severe illness than adults; however, a small number do become very sick and some of these children die. Children can also transmit COVID-19 to other children as well as to adults. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, as of July 31, our state has had 21,170 confirmed cases in persons under age 20, nearly 12% of all cases. There are 12 known deaths of persons under age 20, just under 0.35% of all known deaths.

Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) health policy analysts estimate that nearly one in four teachers in the United States – approximately 1.5 million – are at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19 due to pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), moderate to severe asthma, heart disease, a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40, or a compromised immune system. Teachers age 65 and older are also at higher risk. The KFF estimate applies only to teachers; it does not take into account the number of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, and other essential staff at higher risk, nor the community members with whom teachers and staff might come into contact.

Further, millions of school-age children (ages 5 to 18) live in households with older adults and others with pre-existing conditions. Approximately 4.1 million school-age children – 3% of all school-age children – live in a household with someone over age 65. Conversely, some 3.3 million people age 65 or over – 6.4% of all seniors – live in a household with a school-age child.  In Arizona, approximately 8% of all school-age children have a senior at home, while 6% of all seniors live with a school-age child.

KFF reports, “While nearly half of older adults living with a school-age child are White, older people of color are significantly more likely to live with a school-age child . . . . Nearly one in five (19%) Asian and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander older adults live with a school-age child, as do 17% of Hispanic older adults, 13% of American Indian or Alaska Native older adults, and over one in ten (11%) Black older adults. In contrast, 4% of older White adults live with a school-age child. COVID-19 already has disproportionately affected people of color, and if schools become a source of infection, older people of color would be at increased risk of exposure through school-age children.”

However, a significant number of households, particularly in rural and low-income communities, do not have access to high-speed Internet and other technology resources, nor the ability to provide the supervision needed at home to support distance learning. An extended period of distance learning will disproportionately disadvantage these children.

Reopening schools requires considerable investment to ensure safe and healthy learning environments, with adequate space to allow physical distancing and funds for masks, hand sanitizer, and other equipment and supplies.

Many argue that schools should reopen to provide critical feeding programs and social and mental health services. For too many children, schools are the only safe haven from chaotic, dysfunctional homes where they must contend with poverty, hunger, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Deferring special education could result in lifelong detrimental consequences. Parents may not be equipped to provide schooling at home, much less related speech, physical, and occupational therapies.

No one disputes that in-person education is necessary for developing social skills, and vital for training in the performing arts and athletics. 

Even so, as KFF recognizes, “where there is already widespread community transmission, as in many areas in the U.S., there is clearly a risk of further spread associated with reopening schools. The risks of reopening need to be considered carefully in light of the recognized benefits of in-person education.”

The pressure many of our local educators are facing is too much to ask of them. We’re in a public health crisis and it’s a “fantasy” to think our schools can solve the problem on their own.

“I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy,” Jeff Gregorich, Arizona rural superintendent, on trying to reopen his schools safely

Reopening must be based upon science and public health recommendations, as well as educator expertise—not partisan politics or magical thinking.

Arizona Roadmap for Reopening Schools

KFF, How Many Teachers at Risk if Infected with Coronavirus (July 10, 2020)

KFF, What Do We Know About Children and Coronavirus Transmission? (July 29, 2020)

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