Dale Courtney wrote two columns (Aug. 5 and 20) arguing that the probability of a child dying from COVID-19 infection is “infinitesimally small” and thus schools should reopen. In his latest column, he cites reputable sources to argue that childhood mental health and learning losses exceed the risk of death from COVID-19 and therefore face-to-face instruction is imperative.
News flash for Courtney: Every single parent and teacher in the United States actually “gets” this point. Nobody wants to conduct education in this manner.
Courtney then attacks “some teachers’ unions … (for) their political grandstanding and general fear-mongering,” arguing that teachers’ unions are promoting a far-left agenda of universal health care (who needs that during a pandemic?), moratoriums on rent and mortgage (assistance for the pandemically unemployed?), welfare for illegal immigrants (assuming true, needed to reduce transmission?), and he bemoans the cost per student for public school, which he pegs at $13,847. As an aside, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average spent on public education per student in the U.S. is $11,762, with Washington State being close to the average ($11,534), but I guess Courtney can celebrate that the great state of Idaho only spends $7,157 per student.
Even if you find the risk to minors to be less than concerning, Courtney ignores the potential impact of COVID-19 infections on the faculty, staff, administrators and their families. COVID-19 disproportionately kills people between the ages of 44 and 64 (17.8 percent) with the greatest mortality for those older than 65 (58 percent). The average age of K-12 teachers in the U.S. is 44, and 32 percent of U.S. schoolteachers are older than 50.
My extended family can relate to this concern. Both my sister and sister-in-law work for school districts in western Washington. My sister-in-law’s school district (Thurston County) has opted for distance learning. My sister’s school district (Clark County) is still huffing and puffing about having in-person classes. The incidence of COVID-19 infection in Thurston County is 298 per 100,000 people, while Clark County has 401 per 100,000 people. For comparison, the incidence in Latah County is 331 while the weekend boost in Whitman County has pushed us to 423 per 100,000.
My sister is a healthy 56-year-old, but she has high blood pressure and asthma. Her husband suffers from respiratory complications owing to occasional blood clots and one daughter lives at home because she suffers from a long-term autoimmune disorder. The school district does not account for family members when deciding who may or may not work remotely. A nonmedical staff colleague of hers has been told that once schools reopen, she is responsible for monitoring children who are isolated with COVID-19 symptoms. Limited PPE is available. No HVAC. You’re on your own.
Courtney might consider a different place to aim his arrows. Back in March when in-person teaching became a nonstarter, epidemiological modeling made it clear that this mess was not going to go away without widespread vaccination. Schools muddled through the end of the semester as best they could. My relatives spent countless hours this summer, unpaid, getting up to speed on better methods for distance learning and how to help children through these difficult times.
State budgets are crushed. Resources for public schools are stretched to the breaking point, but the federal government has been AWOL. Despite plenty of warning to get prepared and to assist school districts across the country, the best that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came up with was an extortion racket to deny support for impoverished children if the schools did not open fully for face-to-face instruction.
On June 30, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act that includes $90 billion to support public K-12 schools and postsecondary educational institutions. One-hundred days later, the Senate has failed to do anything. That money was needed before June if planning could be successful for fall, but now we’ll be lucky to see resolution and distribution of any funds by spring semester.
Without this stabilization funding, the personal, institutional and economic damage will take years for recovery. How to pay? In part, the HEROES Act will claw back an estimated $250 billion “Millionaire Giveaway” that came with the original COVID-19 CARES Act.
Doug Call is a microbiologist. He first discovered the Palouse 37 years ago.