When medical experts and leaders discuss Covid-19 and the Delta variant and school safety, they refer to mitigation strategies for keeping students and staff safe. They sound confident that schools will employ layers of organized, controlled, and routine preventative steps. They still don’t seem to understand the problems schools face with mitigations.
Or they say when schools use mitigation strategies, the classroom will be safer. That implies that some schools may not be complying with mitigations for whatever reason. This leaves a lot to chance.
The Delta variant is putting children into hospitals, nearly 1 in 4 Covid cases are now children, and they’re said to be getting sicker than last year when public schools had remote and hybrid options.
Many school districts are refusing a remote option with teachers. This seems dangerous and with poor planning.
Adults getting vaccinated is important, as is getting students over age 12 vaccinated. Maybe middle and high schools for vaccinated students over 12 and adults who have been vaccinated might be safe, in a controlled setting, if schools mandated that all who attend school be vaccinated. But that’s not happening.
Once again, everything depends on mitigations. As schools begin this fall, confidence in prevention strategies is high among those not working in schools, maybe because everyone wants normal so badly, but is this justified? Who’s really monitoring mitigations in schools?
Dr. Leana S. Wen said in The Washington Post last November:
With much of the United States engulfed in exponential virus spread and many hospitals already overwhelmed, most schools should close and stay closed through the winter.
Now, when the Delta variant seems more worrisome for children, Dr. Wen says:
One of the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is that layering different forms of protection works. That means parents, teachers and school administrators should have a checklist of data-driven tools to shield kids and the adults in the classroom from coronavirus infection and long COVID, especially since millions of children are not eligible for vaccines yet.
Proper and well-fitting face masks, ventilation, maximizing time outdoors and vaccines for those who are eligible can protect kids, she said. Each strategy — the various layers of available protections — reduces the chances that a child will catch or spread the virus when they are back at school. And if an unvaccinated child spends hours in the classroom, parents need to scale back other possible high-risk activities, like indoor playdates or sleepovers with other unvaccinated children.
This sounds like schools are safer, but mitigations in schools are still a concern. Mitigation improvements are not consistent in schools.
The CDC lists 5 key prevention strategies:
- Universal and correct use of masks required
- Physical distancing
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
- Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
- Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine
The top two strategies are masks and physical distancing.
Masks are a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from spreading. Studies show that masks reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth.
The obvious problem with masks is that many won’t agree about wearing them. Some schools don’t require masks.
Once parents are convinced that their child is safer wearing a mask, it’s important to get the right kind of mask.
Do students correctly wear the mask? Masks are unpleasant, especially for long periods of time. They get dirty, and children touch and fidget with them.
Students must also remove their masks to eat. How do schools set up safe eating areas?
Wearing a mask is better than not wearing one, but it isn’t foolproof.
Physically distancing in school has never made sense, although students are sometimes kept apart in class, or have plastic barriers on their desks.
This is a great time to lower class sizes which have been too large for too long, but many teachers are already raising concerns about having too many students in packed classrooms.
High school teachers see rotating groups of students, in the same classroom, sometimes up to 200 different students, every day!
Classrooms, hallways, school buses and sporting events, and other school places might still bring students very close together.
Clean hands are still important. Soap and water are best, hand sanitizers are next best, but simply washing hands is not going to protect students from an airborne virus.
We hear schools are getting billions from the Biden administration, but it isn’t clear how the money is being spent.
School district administrators state they’re using the money to upgrade air quality in schools, but some schools have old HVAC systems difficult and expensive to fix.
Some teachers still teach in windowless classrooms or with windows that don’t open. Others aren’t sure how ventilation has been improved. Some teachers bring their own air purifiers.
Other schools spray classrooms with questionable chemicals.
Another question is, who’s maintaining the HVAC system? School districts might have a shortage of engineers and architects who understand how HVAC systems work.
In one school district, they say:
Improvements in air filtration in school heating and air conditioning systems has been found to slow the spread of COVID-19, and many of ABSS’ older buildings have aging systems anyway. There didn’t turn out to be enough money to upgrade every school, so the district had to prioritize.
Wouldn’t parents want their children in the prioritized schools? It sounds like some children will attend schools with good air quality and others won’t.
Some schools do contact tracing, and others don’t. Here’s Texas.
Texas school districts will not be required to conduct contact tracing this year if a student contracts COVID-19, according to new guidelines issued by the Texas Education Agency this week.
Parents asking, is my child’s school building safe, may not get good answers. It often isn’t clear how safe their child’s school is. How big is their child’s class? What mitigations are truly in place to keep students safe?
The problems of keeping children safe once again fall on the teachers. It still doesn’t seem like schools are safe, especially in places where the Delta variant is surging in children and adults. Those who are the experts need to actually visit a variety of schools. Spend some time in them and learn the problems implementing mitigations.
This isn’t the time for photo ops in schools to make parents believe all is well. It’s time to go into schools with medical experts to see the problems teachers face with mitigations!
Wen, L. S. (2020, November 24). Most schools should close and stay closed through winter. The Washington Post, Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/11/24/close-schools-coronavirus-winter/?fbclid=IwAR01GY_jtBBxhZ3xIwVYcAYPQDKQBlqOLTmHhX3-lrXOaD-TdlExy6jmcM8#click=https://t.co/NDh0wz2VtR.
Exactly Nancy, there is nothing more annoying than hearing schools officials talk with an air of confidence in those words. There was never mitigation measures. I hear, “we are working on opening the schools safely too often and for too long.” The only measures we have in Georgia is damage control. Send the students home to quarantine after they are infected with COVID. This is too late. This is after the fact measures. It is appalling that we are still here since March of 2020, when my children came home for good. At that time, I witnessed schools’ lack of organization to finish the school year and I already predicted that school officials would never be capable of handling this pandemic properly. I signed my kids completely out into homeschooling or any lame online “education.” Pen, pencil, books and above all, health and safety. This is not acceptable in a first world country. I am originally from Spain, and masks in schools are not even a topic for debate. This is very scary. When I tell any of my European friends that it is not safe to take my children to school in the US, they cannot comprehend how is this happening here. I am also appalled to see parents focus on complaining about masks and getting their kids involved. Children need to be holding books, not a senseless sign saying “I cannot breath.” These parents and officials have a total disregard for education and the lives of their own children. How did we get to this radical thinking? We need an absolute 180 degree turn in education. I feel very fortunate that I can educate my children at home, but I feel for the parents that do not have this luxury, and the teachers that are exposing their health and emotional well being to this chaotic, inadequate, and dangerous environment we have in our schools. And we have to continue to hear the Republican official saying that restrictions do not work. I don’t know how can they explain that we are doing so much worse than other first world country, if it wasn’t because they abide and apply life saving restrictions. This is very disheartening.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Monica. Thank you for sharing how your friends in Europe look at Americans.
It is hard to see schools functioning safely when Americans can’t come together. Even under the best of circumstances, there’d be concerns.
Yes Nancy, it is hard to believe that the death of people is not bringing us together. This situation is very difficult and no country has come up with great solutions. But I agree with you, if we came close together, we could do much better. Thank you for your great articles and bringing these issues to light!!
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks again, Monica.
Stephen D. Abney says
Florida districts are forbidden to mandate mask wear.
Districts are forbidden to offer virtual services this year after the state Board of Education found that was less effective. However, students may choose Florida Virtual School, which is operated by the state Board of Education. They don’t seem to see the irony.
Some parents report their child has been quarantined three times so far this school year. We are not six weeks into the semester.
We are losing more than one teacher a week to the virus in our district.
Nancy Bailey says
How horrible! Lots of states deny remote learning. See the previous post. But Florida is a mess.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Stephen. Always appreciated.
Sue Gunderson says
I agree. In my investigations as a healthy schools consultant, I have assessed a wide range of school buildings concentrating primarily on those in low income communities where children are more likely to become sick with COVID. These schools are often in poorly maintained conditions and basic cleanliness is near impossible. The custodians and teachers rarely have enough appropriate cleaning supplies or methods to address the conditions such as open holes and broken doors and windows in the buildings exterior. Trying to keep classrooms, lunch rooms and special rooms such as the nurse’s office clean in normal conditions is difficult. Trying to keep poorly maintained buildings clean enough for preventing the transmission of the virus is impossible. These schools have policies and practices set in place that are extremely difficult to easily change. Each school gets a set amount of janitor hours which can be unrealistic. Purchasing policies constrict the brands and types of cleaning supplies and those supplies are allocated to schools on a fixed formula. Janitors are assigned specific tasks for each room. In one school building I visited the nurse’s office was cleaned once a week including the bathroom and surfaces. While I was talking to the nurse, the janitor came in for his weekly visit and mopped the floor with dirty water and a dirty mop.
Prior to the pandemic our nation’s schools were already struggling with years of budget cuts, poor maintenance, buildings in need of safety repairs and kids getting sick from poor heating and a myriad of other physical and procedural contributors to poor health. It is unrealistic to expect schools to take on the monumental task of preventing virus transmission with just more cleaning supplies used in a broken system.
Nancy Bailey says
This! I think most teachers and school staff and students will recognize this as the real reality in many schools, and why it is disingenuous and dangerous for doctors and those far removed from school buildings, and day-to-day teaching, to imply that there’s a controlled school environment with mitigations.
Thank you, Sue. Very much appreciated.
Jake Jacobs says
Seeing hundreds of quarantines on the third day, NYC schools are not following mitigation strategies.
One reason is because much of this is falling on teachers to constantly enforce drooping masks. But half the masks are oversized and loose fitting anyway. The enforcement should be coming from above.
In my school, we have more than 5 brand new teachers, just starting their classroom management practice. But even more experienced teachers are not opening windows and doors.
The city needs to train staff on mitigation strategies and then follow up with enforcement, like a simple walk through of classrooms to check masks and windows.
Then we need to address distancing. We have too many kids to maintain 3 feet, but the types of activities matter, and the rotation of rooms matter, and the monitoring during lunch and recess matters.
At home, parents have to be aware of the risks of travel, playing with strangers, and proper masking/distancing.
NYC also dropped the ball on testing – we are only testing 10% of students twice a month and then only if they are unvaccinated.
But it’s a great point to say the “layers of Swiss cheese” strategy is really just on paper and it is not matching reality.
Nancy Bailey says
Jake, you sound like the expert here. The doctors and political leaders need to talk to you! Thank you for sharing the reality on the ground. It is troubling that teachers are put in the position to keep students safe without the necessary support.