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A sustainable, realistic path to reopening schools

  • Author: Kevin McGee
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 27
  • Published October 27

From left, Anchorage School District superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop, School Board member Starr Marsett, School Board president Elisa Vakalis, and executive assistant Katy Grant listen to public testimony during a School Board work session on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

There’s been a lot of wishful thinking over the last year — remember when Donald Trump said that COVID-19 would be gone by Easter? It is similarly unrealistic to think we can safely reopen schools when Alaska has extremely high rates of COVID-19 transmission in our community. No country has safely reopened schools with anywhere near our infection rate.

Simply put, as long as the state and federal government choose not to implement public health measures, our students will suffer along with our small-business owners, and of course so many of our neighbors who have been infected and tried to fight through COVID-19 infections.

This pandemic has now been underway for more than half a year, during which time there’s been numerous and some very large scale studies about COVID-19 transmission. The data and science continue to clarify some basic realities with each new study that comes out:

· Children can catch and transmit COVID-19, including in a school environment.

· Home and indoor workplaces (i.e. schools) are the most likely places to catch and transmit COVID-19.

· COVID-19 can be transmitted more than 6 feet in indoor environments with inadequate filtration/ventilation (many of our schools, particularly in winter which limits introduction of outside air).

· When there is a high rate of transmission among young people, invariably the virus finds its way to other vulnerable groups such as the elderly, due to intergenerational housing, families visiting, etc.

· Approximately one-third of Alaskans are “high risk” for COVID-19 due to asthma or other common preexisting health conditions.

Given these realities, it seems abundantly clear that we cannot reopen schools safely until the virus is under control. That requires effective state public health measures at a minimum.

It is not the fault of the Anchorage School Board or superintendent that the virus is out of control in Alaska and so many other states. That responsibility lies clearly with President Donald Trump and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who not only fail to implement proven public health strategies but can’t even model good behavior (like wearing a face mask) themselves. Thus, our superintendent and school board face a terrible dilemma: continue imperfect distance learning, or attempt to reopen schools in person and hope for the best?

Reopening schools under these circumstances is a false promise. As we’ve seen in the Mat-Su and in other states, high rates of infection in the community mean students will transmit COVID-19 and schools will have to shut down regularly. So students will be home anyway, but in a manner that’s much more disruptive than the predictable home-based study of distance learning. Along the way, schools will invariably become a vector for viral transmission.

This is not to say that some form of indoor learning couldn’t occur. With proper distancing, universal masking and upgraded HVAC systems (including filtration), schools could have instruction with a much smaller number of students per classroom. But we don’t have enough teachers for that right now, and our facilities haven’t been upgraded for proper indoor air quality. If such instruction were to occur, moreover, it would only be appropriate to issue teachers appropriate personal protective equipment, including masks that protect themselves (N95 or equivalent). With the federal government’s abysmal PPE failure — compounded by the state — such materials are not available in sufficient supply for front-line medical workers, much less teachers.

Many other countries around the world have COVID-19 under control, and their economies are growing again. These include democratic countries like New Zealand and Australia, showing that free people can impose public health measures that work. The U.S. and Alaska, unfortunately, have executives who reject and disparage science, and instead engage in dangerous wishful thinking that leaves everyone else at risk. We know the statistics: Blacks, Alaska Natives and Hispanics are at higher risk of death from this virus, largely because more people of color work front-line jobs that require interaction with people. But let’s face it — runaway COVID-19 transmission hurts all of us.

For the sake of our students, not to mention entrepreneurs and workers, it’s time for effective public health measures. Only then can schools reopen safely, and stay open without constant shutdowns because of virus outbreaks.

Kevin McGee is President of the Anchorage NAACP.

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