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Shawn Vestal: Pandemic creates paradox – we must open schools but we can’t open schools

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 1, 2020

The Spokane Public Schools district is caught in a pandemic trap: Should it open schools this fall amid rising coronavirus infections.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Spokane Public Schools district is caught in a pandemic trap: Should it open schools this fall amid rising coronavirus infections. (JESSE TINSLEY)

The schools have to reopen.

Also, there’s no way the schools can reopen.

But they’ve gotta reopen, right? They must. Our kids need to learn, and they need to learn in classrooms, from teachers, in person. Every one of them is at a crucial stage in their learning – that stage between the last thing they learned and the next one. We know that they tend to unlearn things during breaks – researchers call it “summer learning loss.” Imagine the catching up that will be required if we stay closed and online only.

The schools must reopen.

And yet the schools can’t reopen. Not safely. Not wisely. Coronavirus is in full-blown community spread in Spokane right now. Since Memorial Day, when so many of us decided to take off the rest of the pandemic, every unhappy metric of the disease here has accelerated. Health officials cannot “box in” all cases by tracing contacts and identifying infection pathways, which means it is loose among us and crackling through the undergrowth.

One main guideline for school reopening from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (before those guidelines were edited and softened by the White House) was this: No community spread. We’re not close to that. About a third of our cases last week did not have an “epidemiological link” – meaning officials could not connect them to a previously known case. Meaning they don’t know where it came from. We can’t reopen.

But we must. Online learning, at least in the form it took last year, was dismal. It was unwieldy and confusing; some of it seemed almost written off, too easy – box-checking make-work. When it was challenging, parents were ill-equipped to help. And the level of cajoling and motivation required of parents to get the kids to the computer, keep them on task and make sure they’re doing it right is damn near a full-time job. How in the world are children who need the most help going to get it? They aren’t. The district and the teachers have all worked very hard under incredibly trying circumstances, and this is no knock on them. But months of more online learning is no substitute for the real thing.

We’ve got to reopen the schools.

It would be crazy to reopen the schools. Crazy. While there are some indications that young children do not spread the virus as much as adults, there are also indications that kids above age 10 do spread it just as effectively as adults. What we know about the virus is evolving and incomplete. And while there is ample reason to think COVID-19 is not usually very harsh for kids, there are outlier cases and even fatalities among children – all of which is to say nothing of the safety of the staff and faculty, whose lives will be put in very real danger by a reopening, and the safety of every other member of the community that may be touched by the web of connections formed at schools.

We have had nearly 500 cases of COVID-19 in Spokane County among those ages 19 and below. About 300 of those have come in July. What we know for sure about school in normal times: you could not design a better vector to spread illness. Into and out of the schools the kids go, bringing in whatever there is at home and taking back whatever there is at school. Also, the lesson of the virus so far is that wishful thinking and attempts to control or ignore it have backfired at every turn, whether in the bars or pro sports or the White House. The virus stomps past half-measures and high hopes. Opening the schools would be folly.

But so is staying closed, right? The schools can take precautions. You know – manage the risk. Spokane Public Schools is developing a plan. Desks will be spaced apart. Students, teachers and staff will wear masks. Social distancing will be enforced. In the upper grades, where the buildings are more crowded, the plan is to have students do some days at home, some in school. District officials have been handed an impossible task, and they have done everything they can – absent even minimally competent leadership on a national level – to meet that challenge.

Reopen. We have to.

However: Are you nuts? Kids are going to wear masks? All day long? Stay 6 feet apart? Even when no one’s watching? Have you met kids? For every age level, from kindergarten to senior year to undergrads, this vision of a rigorously compliant student body is a fantasy. The district has been put in an impossible position. There is pressure to open, and there is pressure not to open; there is the idiot fury of the anti-masker cohort and threats to defund the schools from the president; there is a daily rise in cases and a growing recognition among political leaders that we may have to backpedal on reopening the economy; there is contradictory and evolving science; there are incompatible demands at every turn. We’re laying it all at the door of the schools.

No way.

And yet, how can parents return to work with their kids at home? How can the economic disaster stabilize if the nation’s parents can’t go to work without paying for child care that many can’t afford or may not be available? It can’t. Schools have to open. And if schools don’t open, kids who face the largest hurdles to a good life are seeing their hurdles grow. Kids who don’t get enough to eat, or who need social support that they don’t get at home, or who live on the knife edge of a hundred different risk factors for which the school is a chief source of assistance – everything for them gets worse. Chances are that everything for them already has gotten worse. We’ve gotta open.

Can’t, though. Can’t. If we do, we’ll be setting up a viral lottery: Which school(s) will be our hot spot by Christmas? As we conduct a human trial with our children and our educators, will the lessons be reassuring or devastating?

We have to open, but we can’t.

Do I contradict myself? Very well then – the entire nightmare of 2020 contradicts itself. It’s a pandemic paradox, and there’s no good answer.

And yet there is an answer. A safe, smart, responsible, infuriating, necessary answer.

The schools can’t open.

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