If the young are the nation’s future, they are getting a sorry eyeful now of how not to deal with widespread death and disease, uncertainty, and inequity. What will kids say years from now about how parents and politicians handled young folks’ schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The student journalists at the University of North Carolina (photo, right) captured in one vulgar term the shambolic response, labeling it a “cluster—” you-know-what.
That reaction summarized the anger and frustration as leading institutions of higher education, including UNC and Notre Dame re-opened, got thousands of young people sort of settled in, and then abruptly shut down, sending them packing and switching to online learning. The universities did so after coronavirus cases on campus exploded.
Hundreds of colleges and universities have talked all summer about putting in place safety protocols and attempting to offer in-person classes and limited on campus living experiences. As they consider the coronavirus’ spread in their surrounding communities and how it has blown up in dorms and fraternities, they are shifting gears at the last minute, going on line, and aggravating parents and students — some of whom are arriving at the prospective academic homes only to be told to turn around because they are shut. Colleges and universities don’t seem to be cutting parents lots of slack on the higher education bills, either.
Faculty and administrators, seeing young people socialize, party, and act like unruly teenagers in flouting health safety measures, have turned into scolds, arguing for sustained, prudent conduct seldom seen among active and boundary-exploring youths. Can they really be surprised?
K-12 schooling also is a conundrum
Back at home, the K-12 crowd, too, is witnessing grown-ups vent their unhappiness and not doing wonderfully in staying focused on kids’ education. Public health policy has become politicized, and the denial of science and medicine by politicians has forced families to “go it alone,” the New York Times reported, adding this from a recent nationwide survey by the news organization:
- Just one in seven parents said their children would be returning to school full time this fall.
- Four in five parents said they would have no in-person help educating and caring for them, whether from relatives, neighbors, nannies, or tutors …
- 80% of parents who are both working remotely during the pandemic will also be handling childcare and education.
State by state, district by district, administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and kids are navigating through a thicket of differing and contradictory approaches and views on school re-openings and how those will work. Or not. And how online teaching might work. Or not.
Covid-19 infections and deaths among children are creeping upward. Teachers and staff, concerned about putting themselves and their loved ones at risk, are balking, including threatening labor actions in districts demanding they work in person or that are heaping duties and responsibilities on them with online education.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took his legislative body in a long, traditional summer break with congressional Republicans and President Trump unable to negotiate pandemic-related bills with House Democrats that would, among other things, address crucial funding for schools to deal with the coronavirus. Courts and judges across the county have been deluged with lawsuits about schools and their fall plans. The president has declared teachers “essential workers,” a move critics say may be a step by Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to try to force educators into classrooms.
Covid-19 hitting the mobile, active young hard
As the pandemic roars unchecked through the summer, Covid-19 is shifting into a big problem for younger patients, with rising numbers of people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s getting infected. They may not be dying at the terrible rates or in the awful numbers as older Americans.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has warned that Covid-19 can debilitate all those with the disease, especially the young, in ways that doctors are only beginning to grasp. Great concern is growing about coronavirus “long-haulers,” patients who may not fully recover and have serious problems for months after seeming to be Covid-19 free.
The coronavirus’ toll keeps rising, exceeding 5.6 million infections and more than 1750,000 deaths, with those statistics likely understated.
Even as Los Angeles officials have resorted to utility shut-offs to curb youthful partying in rental mansions, critics assail the reopening of Las Vegas casinos and hotels for spreading Covid-19, and coronavirus infections burgeon among attendees at a big biker rally in Sturgis, S.D., the White House keeps zigging and zagging in its ineffectual disease-related actions.
White House zigs and zags
Trump officials ordered the federal Centers for Disease Control and Infection to resume collecting and analyzing crucial hospital data on Covid-19. This reverses the administration’s failed attempt to wrest away the key data by hiring an outside and politically connected consultant to take up this task at an undetermined cost. The White House claimed the consultant would speed up and improve the reporting and use of important information. This did not occur, and the system was roundly attacked by hospitals, disease experts, and advocates who want transparent public information about the pandemic.
The White House, however, was undeterred by this failed incursion into expert terrain, announcing that the president had suspended the federal Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate a broad range of laboratory tests, including for Covid-19. As the Washington Post reported of the action, opposed by the FDA itself:
“The new policy stunned many health experts and laboratories because of its timing, several months into a pandemic. Some public health experts warned the shift could result in unreliable coronavirus tests on the market, potentially worsening the testing crisis that has dogged the United States if more people get erroneous results. They argued the change is unlikely to solve current testing problems, which at this point are largely due to shortages of supplies such as swabs and chemical reagents. But supporters cheered the change as long overdue, saying it could help get new and more innovative tests to market more quickly. They said that the FDA review process sharply slowed testing at the beginning of the pandemic and that the new policy could ensure such bottlenecks don’t recur.”
The latest regulatory ruckus cannot reverse the administration’s Covid-19 testing debacle, in which federal officials shoved this big, complex, and difficult task on to states. The administration declined to develop a national testing strategy and to step up to ensure that companies would provide the public adequate tests and get results back in meaningful time.
The FDA did just approve an easier, faster, less costly “spit” or saliva-based test for the coronavirus. This test was developed by the National Basketball Association and Yale University. It requires a smaller and more convenient to get sample from patients, putting health workers at lower risk. The developers do not intend to profit from the product, saying it could be used more widely than existing tests and to the benefit of poor communities of color that also are medically underserved. The test has gotten favorable attention, no doubt riling the president who has been a persistent social media critic of the NBA and its popular African American athletes.
NPR reported that the FDA also rankled the president when it heeded counsel from Fauci and other leading infectious disease experts, declining to give expedited and emergency approval to blood plasma therapy for Covid-19. This approach, giving patients an antibody-rich and safe part of the blood, has not shown strong evidence of favorable outcomes in clinical trials, the experts told the FDA. Trump has called the disease-fighting antibodies a “beautiful ingredient” in the veins of coronavirus survivors and has pushed for its use in treating patients.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the real benefits they can enjoy by staying healthy and out of the U.S. health care system. That system had its big problems before the pandemic, including with infections acquired in care giving institutions (hospitals and nursing homes), misdiagnoses, and medical errors — the third leading cause of death in the nation, by some expert estimates.
That said, we need to protect and improve the health system more than ever, notably with big support for public health and medicine based in science and evidence. It is painful and unacceptable to see the rising anger, confusion, and frustration that so many Americans confront — whether in making big decisions about their work, home life or youngsters’ education — with a glaring dearth of political leadership.
This leaves us all, as the parents sadly told the New York Times, too much on our own. This means we should research diligently, question information aggressively, analyze what we know with heightened care, and rely on evidence-based medicine and science — not rumors, myths, and widespread ignorance and misinformation. For now, we must be diligent about our hygiene, covering our faces, maintaining appropriate distance, and avoiding crowed and closed settings. Despite the temptations of a dwindling summer, we would be well-served by caution, staying around our homes and neighborhoods and avoiding bars, parties, and mass gatherings. We can try to stay outdoors while the weather allows. We can schedule flu shots and other recommended inoculations, especially for young folks. We may be unhappy about it, but we’ve got to figure what’s best for them and their health and their schooling. We’re in for more hard days around the house with significant others and family members.