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Back to School, for Now

As the debate rages on in our backyard, around the country school boards are seeing the writing on the wall.

Sunday Evening Editorial: By Joe Malburg

We have to open schools. For the mental and social health and development of our children, for the quality of their education, for the economy, because some parents can’t stay home and supervise, because we need a return to normalcy, because the virus isn’t that dangerous to kids, because we only need to protect those in at-risk demographics like the elderly or immuno-compromised, or simply because it’s all a hoax. No matter what the reason given, there is no shortage of calls for a return to in-person learning this fall. And while that is the end game every educator, administrator, parent and student has in mind, the drum beat to act now and deal with the consequences later is loudening. The pressure is mounting to the point where some schools have accidentally on purpose shifted the blame to the parents and families. “We’ve listened to you and understand you want face-to-face learning” one school district wrote before announcing it’s plans to return to business as usual under unusual circumstances.. Listening to what parents want is something every school district should do, but something none of them should base their decisions primarily on. The reality is that we don’t fully understand what the risks are now or down the road. We don’t fully understand how covid-19 impacts young people in the short term, long term or in relation to their capacity as asymptomatic carriers of the virus. So with so much that we don’t know, I thought it would be helpful to examine what reopening means on the basis of what we do know.

We know that Covid-19 impacts individuals in a variety of ways without any apparent rhyme or reason. We know that young people have died, including high school students in over thirty states and hundreds of college students including from local Universities, Western Michigan, Wayne State and Detroit Mercy. And we know that the effects are not always limited to the duration of the disease both for young people and adults. As professional sports have returned to action, not all of the athletes have felt safe to return and some who have already had the disease are unable to continue their athletic careers because of complications. One such example is Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba, who caught covid-19 in June. Despite technically having recovered, the damage to his heart and lungs have forced him out of action. Bamba is a 22-year-old professional athlete in peak physical condition, but now his career is in jeopardy. And it’s not just young people. The Macomb Daily recently highlighted the story of 41-year-old Clinton Township resident Joleen Nelson whose recovery from covid has been devastating thus far. An active, healthy, physical therapist prior to contraction, Joleen has suffered from continuing neurological effects including seizures. There is no clear explanation for her continuing symptoms or a clear path for treatment going forward. But the reality of her elongated and uncertain recovery is something she faces every day,

“With the lingering effects from covid there are good and bad days.” She said, “Unfortunately more (of the) bad. And the “good” days are nothing close to prior to covid. It’s a new normal that (we) have to adjust to. A good day I can do (a couple) light chores or go for a walk. I can no longer do the things that I loved. I can no longer be very active like I used to be. It has done so much damage to my body that Doctors can’t figure out.”

These are the risks we are exposing everyone to without knowing who, if anyone, will be afflicted. These are the things we have to consider before we decide to take this risk, and more importantly, when and how to take it. We know that a high percentage of High Schools and Colleges that have returned to in-person learning have been forced to move to complete online learning in a relatively short period of time. It started with high schools in Georgia opening and on the day of, a photo of a crowded hallway of maskless students went viral. That school district closed within two weeks after more than fifty positive cases came to light. Since then, Georgia’s largest school district has been forced to follow suit after more than 200 employees district wide either tested positive or were forced into quarantine. At Corinth High in Mississippi, three students tested positive after the first day and more than forty were in quarantine by week's end. A high school in Indiana had so many cases upon students first returning to school that it had to shift to complete online learning after just two days. And these are not the exception, but the rule. All around the south and midwest as schools return this month, a slew of problems are emerging and few solutions are in sight. In Tennessee’s Hamilton school district, a spokesman was forced to plead with parents who had knowingly sent infected kids to school to adhere to the guidelines they put in place. In Louisiana, a group of middle schoolers who refused to wear masks in class and were sent home returned to school the next day and repeated the behavior. Are we ready for this? We know it’s not just middle schools and high schools either. The University of North Carolina opened earlier this month and registered over a third of their 270 total positive cases since March during the first week of testing post incubation period. A week later, one dormitory complex alone yielded 102 positive cases. The result was a shut-down of in-person learning and neighboring North Carolina State joining them in full remote learning for the first semester. Closer to home, in South bend Indiana, Notre Dame brought students back just over two weeks ago, their outbreak resulted in more than 300 students testing positive and a closing of campus activities that Michigan State University (among other midwestern institutions) quickly followed. It seems beyond any question now that in-person learning will lead to a spike in cases in most areas that have any degree of infection level. The exceptions to the rule have consistently been rural school districts in states or parts of states that have not yet experienced any significant level of spread. Metro Detroit and specifically, Macomb County do not fit that description. We know that a number of local colleges and area high schools have moved to complete online learning, at least to start the year. And we know that finances have in some ways informed that decision. This isn’t schools saying, “we want to make more money”, though. This is schools accepting the reality that they might be forced to spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars depending on the district size to start up in-person learning under covid-19 parameters that could in all likelihood be shutdown before the end of the first month. Nationwide the expenses associated with school districts starting up for face-to-face learning, done safely in a Covid-19 environment, is an estimated $116.5 billion price hike. That burden is shared throughout the fifty states and thousands of districts, but nevertheless adds up to a hefty fee for already stretched thin school boards now facing an almost inevitable budget shortfall as a result of the pandemic and the economic recession it has precipitated. Every time a district is forced to shutdown and restart that cost climbs. In fact, next to health and safety, Utica Community Schools Superintendent Christine Johns cited the financial fallout as one of the primary reasons for her district, the second largest in the state, to begin the year entirely online. While no one wants to prioritize cost over what is best for the students, that is an unavoidable reality in the best of times and something we can’t afford to ignore in times like these.

We know that a great deal of local Collegiate Athletic Conferences have postponed the fall sports season. The Big Ten (B1G), Mid-American (MAC), Great Lakes (GLIAC) and Horizon league are the four largest conferences in which Michigan Colleges and Universities compete. None of them will be playing fall sports. This despite millions of dollars of revenue at stake and a good deal of vocal support from student-athletes for playing the season out as long as possible. That revenue, for schools with a major division one Football program, funds a good portion of the rest of the Athletic Department and yet they are shutting it down and shutting off the faucet completely. For these academic institutions, the student-athletes provide a major boost both financially and in terms of excitement on campus, but their obligation to all of their students' health and safety seems to have trumped that fervor. Not to mention the potential liability, which is even more of a factor for individual public school districts whose budgets are microscopic in comparison. How can anyone assure parents their kids are safe when no one really knows at this time? After having given the green light in late July, last week, the MHSAA decided against having a fall Football season and postponed it, tentatively to the spring. Like their collegiate colleagues, they saw no path to a season without constant constrenuation and the potential for disaster. Football is king among prep sports, but the risk on the field outweighed the reward, which has to make you wonder, why are the classrooms considered any different?

The entire covid-19 experience has been like a gradual begrudging acceptance of a reality we all want to escape. And the dilemma for how to handle back to school is no different. Let’s put aside the feelings of division that have us all too frequently assigning attitudes to people they would never profess to hold themselves. For the purposes of this exercise operate under the following assumption: We all want kids to go back to school for complete face-to-face learning the second it is safe to do so. So what we are really debating is, “when is it safe?” or perhaps more precisely expressed “when is it safe enough to take the risk?”. And considering that even the most distinguished of experts admit that this is not an exact science, perhaps it is also only fair to put aside our own opinions; be they of the more measured middle of the road variety or either the “open up now” or “online all year” extreme points of view. What we all have to admit is that we don’t know. And that with any choice we make there is risk. Some students and families will benefit and thrive, others will suffer and be left behind. Is this fair? No. Is it reality? Sadly, yes. I’ll close by sharing a sentiment that is in no way my own original thought. In fact, it’s been shared in some form or another by so many over the course of this pandemic that I can’t figure who rightly to attribute it to. We will never know for sure if we did too much and should regret overreacting to the dangers of Covid-19 retroactively, but if we do not take sufficient caution, if we are careless and it comes at a cost our children in part have to pay, it will be painfully clear and we will never be able to forgive ourselves.


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