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Education issues and COVID-19

CHARLESTON — I shoehorned education issues and COVID-19 into the end of my column last week, but I’d be remiss in not diving into this contentious issue a bit more in light of recent union comments and last week’s West Virginia Board of Education meeting.

I received some pushback last week, and by pushback, I mean one email saying “how dare you,” for comparing the work grocery and daycare employees have done in dealing with groups of people to teachers returning to the classroom next month.

Of course, there are differences between those classifications of workers. But teachers who may or may not have to return in person on Sept. 8 will have new circumstances and issues based on the various school re-entry plans I’ve seen. And while there will be risks, I don’t think those risks will come from where they think they will.

All three unions that deal with students, the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, believe schools should not start in-person education on Sept. 8. Instead, they call for distance learning in the first few weeks or for the fall semester.

They wish for this statewide versus piecemeal. I have no idea why. Based on the weekly numbers I track, there were four counties with no active COVID-19 cases as of last Monday. Fifteen counties had five active cases or less. Why can’t these counties go ahead and start in-person learning?

Take Tyler County, for example. Only 15 cases have been recorded in the county since the state started keeping track in March. As I write this, there are no active cases in the county. What about Doddridge County. It remained COVID-free until July 25. Since then, four people have recovered from the virus, while two people report active cases. Why can’t Doddridge reopen?

Outside a handful of nursing home outbreaks and outbreaks in a few southern West Virginia counties, cases in most counties go up and down by a few cases. There could be real reasons to keep some counties closed based on poorly crafted re-entry plans or increases in cases. But there is no reason for this to be a statewide edict. It’s true that the virus doesn’t understand county borders, but it can’t be denied that this virus is different from county to county.

What about the possibility of spreading the virus in schools? Yes, that is a real issue and it will inevitably happen. But the science is still out on how children are affected by COVID-19.

For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report 20 children between the ages of 5 and 14 have died from coronavirus since Feb. 1, while 31 children between the ages of 15 and 18-year-olds have died, and 25 children up to age 5 have died. Matt Welch, an editor-at-large at Reason Magazine, crunched the numbers.

“Children are 23.1 percent of the United States population,” Welch writes. “That means that they account for 1 out of every 4.3 people, 1 out of every 11.4 coronavirus cases, 1 out of every 50 hospitalizations, and 1 out of every 3,333 deaths.”

Welch cites data compiled by COVID-Explained, a group of doctors, immunologists, economists, MIT researchers and grad students who comb through all the scholarly journals and studies. They look at several studies of this topic: A South Korean study that tracked 5,700 COVID patients and 59,000 of their contacts and studies out of Italy and the Netherlands.

“Putting this together, it seems clear that children are less likely to be infected than adults, but they can still spread the virus,” the researchers determined from those studies. “What is less clear, still, from the data is just how well children spread the virus when they do get infected.” In West Virginia, 4 percent of active COVID cases are in the 0-9 group, while 10 percent of children ages 10-19 have the virus. Those two cohorts make up the smallest percentage of cases. You’re more likely to get this virus from millennials ages 20-29 who make up the majority – 23 percent – of cases.

To be frank, and to paraphrase President Franklin Roosevelt, the only thing teachers (and school service personnel) have to fear…is their fellow teachers and school service personnel. And probably students closer to 18, which means high schools. It remains to be seen what the number will be, but many parents are going to opt in for virtual learning. That’s going to cut down on the number of students in schools. That should make enforcing social distance guidelines among students easier.

The Department of Education received more than 60,000 responses to a survey regarding re-entry thoughts. They haven’t released the results, but some counties have done their own surveys. According to WV MetroNews, more than two-thirds of Putnam County families want their kids in the school building, not at home. I have to imagine many counties would have similar results depending on the amount of infection in those counties. If you’re concerned – and you should be – you should be involved with your local board of education, your school, and your teachers. But whether schools open up or go to distance learning should be a county-by-county decision. And again, let the data and science guide you.

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