The nation’s biggest health worry now has fallen on the country’s little people: As Covid-19 infections have exceeded 3 million and the disease has killed at least 134,000, how many parents will send their kids back to school soon, especially as the coronavirus pandemic spikes in the South and West?
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as poker players say, have pushed all (their chips) in, insisting that schools reopen and return to fall normality. The president assailed his own health experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for putting forth guidance on schools that he deemed too costly and complicated.
In doing so, however, he and his administration have only further muddied a profound decisions confronting parents and educators about keeping kids safe while also ensuring they don’t lose the invaluable personal and educational experiences of learning together with peers — IRL (in real life or in person), as young people say.
School districts nationwide — in the midst of terrible budget shortfalls — are grappling with the nitty-gritty of how to get youngsters in classrooms and out of their homes, including with greater distancing, face covering, and hand washing and other infection-fighting hygiene.
The grown-up plans, of course, battle with the realities of how kids will be kids, hugging and kissing, as well as just plain dirty and unsanitary at times (because they don’t know better). Educators’ efforts to follow the best available medical-scientific guidance also will be neither cheap nor easy. Who will pay, for example, for steps like plexiglass dividers between kids, or more frequent and better sanitation of classrooms, or improved air circulation and cleaning systems? Who will cover the cost of more buses and drivers with fewer kids aboard each, or for increased kitchen staff for youngsters’ in-person dining? And, given the strapped budgets that public schools already struggle with, the goal of fully reopened schools this fall seems far more formidable than bellicose presidential commanding may overcome.
But the United States differs from other countries because it does not have Covid-19 anywhere near control and instead has become the pandemic’s world epicenter: Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and Mississippi report their hospitals and medical systems are on the brink of being overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, even as the state’s infections mount by the minute. Younger people have become the disease’s new and prime afflicted, with African Americans and Latinos bearing a terrible brunt. The feckless optimism has faded about the summer’s heat causing the virus to magically disappear and the faint cheering is vaporizing about Covid-19’s killing capacity: deaths and mortality rates, lagging indicators, are rising anew.
It takes an army of adults to get youngsters to school and to educate and care for them there. Teachers, with strong and vocal unions, have made clear that reopening classrooms put them at heightened risk — and many educators may be unwilling to imperil themselves and their loved ones by going back to school without greater health assurances. The independent, nonpartisan Kaiser Health Foundation reported that its analysis of the K-12 work force found that 1 in 4 teachers and school staff have higher coronavirus risk because of their age and underlying conditions.
Even if schools stagger schedules and teach online some, allowing fewer students to be in the building on a given day, teachers and staff will get higher exposure to youngsters, including potentially asymptomatic carriers. Their duties also may be far more stressful than before as they must monitor kids’ wellness and police unsafe behaviors. Did we mention that many districts, due to budget issues, may lack rudimentary health support in individual schools, aka school nurses or health care workers?
If grown-ups aren’t OK with having kids back in school, moms and dads and uncles and aunts and grandparents likely will need to be home providing youngsters’ care and education there. That has and will be a persistent problem in trying to restart the nation’s coronavirus staggered economy with its record-setting joblessness.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the high value in their staying healthy and out of the U.S. health care system. Until medical science comes up with a way to prevent or better treat it, the coronavirus will continue to pose the possibility of swamping our health resources. In their better times, they already had notable problems with infections acquired in hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical care giving facilities, as well as major challenges with medical error and misdiagnoses.
That said, the U.S. health system, and especially the public health system, is in dire need of thoughtful, sustained, and extensive support during this pandemic. It is unacceptable that the shambolic federal response, including the president’s failure to so much as talk with his leading epidemic experts for months now, stumbles on as the coronavirus rages. How can it be, months in, that basic public health challenges have gone unanswered — notably at a federal and nationwide level where appropriate action would be difference making? There are still too few tests, with results taking too long. Health care workers are rightfully panicked, frightened, and angry about the dire lack of personal protective equipment, again and still. The White House dereliction of responsibility has left it to the states to deal with contract tracing and isolation of the infected — the administration seems to have adopted a blind eye to Covid-19 deaths and infections, even if they skyrocket from place to place to place across the nation.
How bad will the Covid-19 pandemic get in the days ahead? It is hard not to be pessimistic. We have difficult decisions to make, including about our young people’s lives, and we have much work to do. It is tragic that too many of our elected officials won’t be leaders in the battle against Covid-19. But we must be realistic, then, how little we should rely on them — and we are far past the point where we can wait for them to keep doing so poorly.