Open letter to Dr. Cody re: schools should remain closed – OP-ED

Dear Dr. Cody:

Due to your decisive leadership in executing one of the nation’s first stay-at-home orders, you have saved over 19,000 lives in the Bay Area (San Jose Mercury News, 12 May 2020). We, educators and concerned citizens of the Bay Area and beyond, humbly request that you order all schools in the county to serve students via distance learning, in order to prevent more unnecessary death and suffering from coronavirus and related complications.

 

Evidence of Coronavirus Transmission in Schools

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Though there is limited data on the risk of opening schools in the United States (likely because the vast majority of schools have been remote-only since March), the data from schools that remained open, both domestically and internationally, paints a grim picture. In Texas, over 550 children have contracted coronavirus from daycares (KVUE, 9 July 2020). Internationally, schools in Hong Kong, Israel, South Africa, Canada, The Netherlands, and France have faced outbreaks, and some schools there have had to close. These countries have seen considerably higher success rates in controlling coronavirus transmission than the United States, yet they are grappling with increased cases.

On the domestic front: in Arizona, an educator died and two others contracted coronavirus with no students present. These educators were teaching remotely, but were in the same classroom (Arizona Republic, 9 July 2020). More locally, 40 principals in Santa Clara were exposed to coronavirus during an in-person meeting in June (San Jose Mercury News, 3 July 2020). Given these adverse effects when opening schools without students, we are concerned that physically opening schools with students will increase coronavirus transmission.

 

Issues with Current Reopening Guidelines

We have read the reopening guidelines published by Santa Clara County Public Health on June 30, 2020. We have identified several issues with physically reopening schools, including:

  • Screening all students and staff for coronavirus: From the Reopening Guidelines: “All students and staff should be screened for symptoms each day. Staff and students’ parents or guardians can conduct symptom screening at-home, prior to arrival.” According to a public statement released by Santa Clara Unified School District, all staff members were required to self-report symptoms before attending the aforementioned June in-person meeting (Santa Clara Unified School District, 7 July 2020). Still, there was at least one person at the meeting with coronavirus. We are concerned that self-reporting of symptoms will not be a reliable or sufficient way to identify coronavirus cases, especially when these self-reported surveys are conducted on large numbers of students. In addition, we are concerned about the fidelity of these surveys. How much time will parents and caregivers need to set aside to complete these surveys? Many caregivers of all socioeconomic backgrounds work in jobs that do not provide adequate sick leave. Therefore, parents will have the incentive, and sadly sometimes the necessity, to misrepresent their child’s health data, as some literally cannot afford to be sick. Finally, we are concerned about some of the logistical aspects of self-reported surveys, including: how the surveys will be distributed (e.g. online vs. paper. If the survey is done online, will there be paper copies available for families without internet access or technology?), who will monitor the surveys, and what will happen if parents and staff do not complete surveys.
  • Bus transportation:  There are some feasible recommendations from the Reopening Guidelines, including required use of masks, social distancing by having one student per bus row, and increased cleaning of buses. However, given growing evidence of airborne coronavirus transmission, we are concerned about student and bus driver safety, especially for buses with fixed windows and air conditioning that uses recirculated air.
  • Classroom ventilation:  From the Reopening Guidelines: “Increase ventilation by increasing outdoor air circulation (e.g., by opening windows) or using high-efficiency air filters and increasing ventilation rates.” Many classrooms have fixed windows, if they have windows at all. Installing air filters is a commendable solution, assuming that every classroom can be retrofitted with air filters in five weeks, which is when most county schools are set to reopen for students. Another recommendation from the Reopening Guidelines is to open classroom doors. While this may be feasible for some classrooms, a significant portion of special education classrooms have students with elopement risk, and therefore need to keep their doors closed. Finally, both student and staff restrooms must be retrofitted to ensure proper ventilation.
  • ‘Stable Cohort’ Model:  From the Reopening Guidelines, elementary schools should “[e]nsure students and staff remain in stable classroom cohorts by keeping the same students and teacher or staff together for the entire school day. Students should not mix with other stable classroom cohorts.” In the vast majority of elementary school classrooms, students receive pull-out (students leave the classroom and go to another one) individualized education plan (IEP) services, such as speech-language therapy, specialized academic instruction, occupational therapy, adapted physical education, and physical therapy. These services are legally mandated, typically performed in groups, and seemingly are incompatible with the stable cohort model. Even if the special education service providers group students by cohort to avoid any cohort mixing, students have an elevated risk of exposure, as they will be in a room where multiple other cohorts have congregated. When students return to their cohort, they potentially will put their entire cohort at a greater risk due to their increased risk of exposure. Service providers will be exposed to nearly every cohort in the school, which puts them at a much higher risk of exposure. In addition, some students in special education classrooms have legally mandated inclusion minutes, where they must spend time in a general education classroom. Will it be possible for students to attend class in two cohorts? On the general education front, students will be exposed to staff members who serve multiple cohorts, including librarians and physical education teachers.
  • Social Distancing in the Classrooms. From the Reopening Guidelines: secondary schools should “maximiz[e] the space between student desks.” There will need to be a significant reduction in student numbers to make this plan feasible. In addition, teachers are to “Assign stable seating arrangements for students to ensure that close contacts within classrooms are minimized and easily identifiable.” While seating charts are a good reference, students, especially those who are younger and more energetic, will need to move about the classroom, and physiologically are unable to sit still for hours. As such, close contacts in the classroom cannot be minimized. Finally, teachers are encouraged to limit high-touch items and close contact between students. This will limit teachers’ abilities to assess work in real-time, check in with students with social-emotional needs, and teach using evidence-based tools that necessitate close contact. Much of the reopening debate is structured around a return to “normalcy;” however, if schools physically reopen, they will be anything but normal.
  • Mask use: The current Reopening Guidelines do not require elementary students to use a face covering in their classroom. However, they are required to wear a covering while in school hallways, and other non-classroom areas of the school. These inconsistent guidelines will confuse students, and a mask-optional classroom puts all students and staff in that classroom at risk. Unfortunately, mask use has become a political issue, though masks have been proven to be a safe and effective way of reducing disease transmission. How will teachers be protected if their students refuse to wear masks in all areas of school? In addition, some students with sensory processing disorders will not be able to tolerate masks, which puts teachers at a higher risk.
  • Cleaning: The Reopening Guidelines recommend more frequent cleaning of classrooms. School districts will need to hire more personnel to meet this need.
  • Speaking of personnel, there is going to be a higher need for substitute teachers, especially because the reopening guidelines mandate 14-day quarantine for teachers exposed to coronavirus. Even before the pandemic, it was difficult to find substitute teachers. These days, it will be much harder. Many substitutes are retired teachers, who will not return to the classroom.
  • Speaking of quarantine, the Reopening Guidelines state the following in case of coronavirus exposure: “For elementary schools and other settings in which stable classroom cohorts have been maintained: All students and staff should be instructed to get COVID-19 testing and remain quarantined at home for 14 days…For middle schools/junior high schools, high schools, and any settings in which stable classroom cohorts have NOT been maintained: Utilize class seating rosters and consultation with teachers/staff to identify close contacts to the confirmed COVID-19 case in all classrooms and on-campus activities. A close contact is someone who has been within six feet of the case for a prolonged period of time (at least 10-15 minutes) regardless of face covering use. Close contacts should be instructed to get COVID-19 testing and should remain quarantined at home for 14 days.” While it is commendable that all students and teaching staff have clear guidance on protocols in case of exposure, support staff are not included in this guidance. Support staff, such as special education providers, physical education teachers, and librarians, will also have prolonged contact with students, who may not necessarily be wearing a face covering or practicing social distancing (some speech-language and occupational therapy services cannot be done from six feet away). If a stable cohort quarantines, will support staff quarantine as well? In addition, middle and high school students will interact with several students, as they will take multiple classes and congregate in the hallways and cafeteria. If one student is exposed to coronavirus, many students in the school will be at risk, and contact tracing efforts will be infeasible, given our continued weak contact tracing efforts compared to other nations.
  • PPE Shortages: There are reports of continued shortages of PPE in the medical setting Washington Post, 8 July 2020). We are concerned that these shortages will affect school districts’ ability to provide sufficient PPE to protect students and staff.
  • Increased close contacts outside of school: Virtually all schools that are physically reopening are working on a hybrid model, where students attend school for two days, and/or have a shortened school day compared to a typical year. This will mean that there is an increase in children attending daycare and afterschool programs, which increases transmission risk and contact tracing difficulties. In addition, the close contacts that will naturally occur when school reopens will normalize close contacts out of school.
  • Equity Issues: For schools that are giving families the choice of full remote learning vs. hybrid learning, there will be differences in the families that choose each program. Families that have more resources (e.g. ability for one parent to stay home, ability to remote work, higher education level to aid with distance learning) are more likely to choose an independent study program or a full distance education program. Families without these resources will choose a hybrid program. This would have far-reaching implications as to which socioeconomic backgrounds are the most susceptible to catching coronavirus. While much of the reopening debate is structured around equity, topics such as the inequity of opening schools tend not to be discussed.

 

Requests

Our requests are as follows:

  • Immediately order that all Santa Clara County schools operate on a full distant learning program until Santa Clara County has 14 days with no cases. According to the CDC, 14 days is the upper bound as to when symptoms can arise after a coronavirus exposure (CDC, 7 July 2020). As such, we will have truly managed the outbreak in Santa Clara County when there are 14 days with no new cases. While some districts (including Santa Clara Unified, Fremont Unified, and Hayward Unified) have made the laudable decision to start the year with distance learning due to the recent increase in coronavirus cases, a patchwork of districts that have inconsistent guidelines would not be sufficient to mitigate risk. In addition, many teachers may have their own children in Santa Clara Unified (full distance) but work in a district that is not on distance learning, which would cause childcare issues for the teacher and personnel issues for their district.
  • Provide support for educators, administrators, parents, and students to work on a robust distance learning plan that works for all students, including children with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students experiencing homelessness. Provide a program that does not revolve on technology, to ensure equity for those who learn best through different modes of learning. Collaborate with education departments at universities and private corporations that provide educational tools to research best practices and design a robust distance learning program. Though we only have five weeks until the first day of school, we can create a distance learning program that addresses the valid concerns from the spring distance learning program, which was started with just one week’s notice.

 

Conclusion

We understand that the California Education Code states that schools must physically reopen to the extent possible. In addition, it is the dream of every educator to open their classroom doors and physically welcome students to class. However, given the rising coronavirus cases in California and the nation, we do not believe that it is possible to physically open schools to any extent and maintain safety. There are too many logistical and practical problems with reopening schools, and any in-person education will result in death to students and staff. We trust that Santa Clara County will take the logical, data-driven step of closing all schools until it is truly safe to open them. For any interested parties, please feel free to contact us at https://sites.google.com/view/drcodycloseschools/.

 

Yours sincerely,

Chandru Vittal

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