New Zealand went 102 days without a coronavirus case. Last Wednesday morning four new cases were confirmed in a single family in Auckland, the country’s largest city, with 1.7 people. The city went into immediate lockdown for at least three days, what it calls Level 3 lockdown, which is similar to our own lockdown in April: no movement except for essential services, all schools closed, no gatherings of more than 10 people allowed. The rest of the country was ordered to Level 2 lockdown, with looser restrictions. The government was ordering a testing blitz and a slew of other public health measures, sparing no dime.
That was for four cases. A day later, the count had risen to 17, and by today the count was 69. We had 17 cases in a single day last week and finished last week with 88 cases in Flagler, a county with a population 15 times smaller than Auckland. What did we do? We welcomed back teachers, threatened them with job loss if they didn’t show and moved on to training them for the big return of 7,000 students to nine campuses even though the governor himself has not lifted our own Phase 2 restriction on building capacity of no more than 50.
You can’t have more than 50 percent capacity in a restaurant, but capacity of 63 percent, and a lot more when you include faculty, is fine in schools. You’re asked not to have gatherings of more than 50 people, but 725 students at Belle Terre Elementary, 1,700 students at FPC, 1,000 at Matanzas (and more when you include faculty and staff) is all fine.
We’re forcing teachers and other employees into a situation they have no control over, into an environment that does nothing to help contain this pandemic and that may very well help accelerate it even as we are once again seeing numbers declining, though from stratospheric heights. It doesn’t matter how prepared the schools are. It isn’t if there will be outbreaks in our schools. It’s when there will be outbreaks, though the district’s intention to keep most infection information from the public at large is disturbing. The district is doing nothing less than knowingly endangering faculty and students. Knowing the numbers of this epidemic, it’s not a matter of if, but when, a school employee and eventually a student, will die. (Elias Ramirez, a dean at a Crescent City middle school, died of covid last week. He was 47. Putnam also recorded the youngest death to covid in Florida: a 9 year old girl.)
For many students and school employees, for many parents, going to school comes down to something like Sophie’s choice, if you recall William Styron’s character who had to choose which of her two children would live and which would die. It’s not an exaggeration. Many of us are faced with a choice that at least entails the risk of contracting a disease whose incidence of hospitalization and death is nothing to toy with.
No one should be placed in that situation when the numbers are what they are–not just the incidence of lethality, but the high number of infections still prevailing in Flagler and Florida. Schools can probably enact the recommended safety precautions, assuming they can get cleaning supplies, masks and safety equipment in their teachers’ hands. But schools aren’t segregated from the community around them, and protecting against this virus isn’t like protecting against an assailant with a gun. You can’t just lock doors. Not when the entire community around you, when the air you breathe, is the assailant. Yet that’s the situation in which the district is choosing to place its employees and students, and by extension, the community around it.
I don’t mean to pick on the Flagler district. It’s no different a district than hundreds like it across the country. They’re doing the same thing, caving to political pressure the way communities caved in May and reopened prematurely. Flagler happens to be my home district. If I were living in Arizona, I’d be despairing over the same follies there (where, for that matter, my daughter is a teacher and is expected back in school this week.)
I doubt this is what most administrators in the district want to do. This is what they’re being forced to do by a hapless governor who thinks ordering schools back in session in a state that remains the epicenter of the pandemic in America is the wisest course. He’s forced districts to revolutionize their models without providing them an additional cent to do it with, or giving them the flexibility to decide whether to open and how. Of course in-person instruction is best. Of course reopening must happen when feasible. But if this is a war against an invisible enemy, as so many politicians refer to it when convenient, then let’s act like it. Prudent states and districts are keeping their campuses closed and enacting remote-only education. It’s not ideal. But it beats Russian roulette.
Florida is more Tarzan than Odysseus when it comes to prudence. There’s nothing a little chest-thumping can’t fix. In May Florida did as Georgia did, reopening prematurely as DeSantis and his disciples bragged. By June, case loads were soaring. Florida became a laughing stock of incompetence on a scale now measured by a daily death tally in the hundreds. Georgia opened its schools a few days ago. It didn’t take long for 1,200 students to be quarantined in a county in suburban Atlanta. We’re about to follow. It’s already happened in Martin County, where elementary students were sent home a day after reopening.
There’s a lot we don’t know about covid-19, and a lot of that has to do with the spread of the virus among children or from children to adults. There’s also a lot we do know. To suggest that children don’t get sick or don’t sp[read the virus, as our acting president did just last week, is false: 97,000 children were infected in the United States in July alone. Most don’t get sick. But among those admitted to hospital, 1 in 3 end up in intensive care. Blacks and Hispanics get sick at far higher rates. If children 9 and younger are less likely to spread the disease, those older than 9 spread it just like adults, according to the largest study on children and covid to date. Putting people together in large groups, whether you distance them or not, whether they wear masks or not, is an invitation to risk as long as your community is still experiencing community spread. That’s the issue here: Flagler is nowhere near a safe zone.
A few weeks ago at a school board meeting the chairman asked rhetorically how European schools have managed to reopen. But they’ve done so–when they have, anyway–because Europe after its own stumbles tamed the disease with drastic measures, not because schools reopened while the virus was still circling. In most of the continent, only a portion of students returned, and only for a few weeks before the long summer break intervened. In most countries schools are still closed for summer or have barely opened. Several countries are rethinking opening or re-closing as the virus surges again. As an instructive Washington Post survey of school reopenings in Europe put it last month, “Schools have only reopened in countries where the virus is under better control than in many parts of the United States. And parents and teachers, especially in Europe, have been vocal about their concerns. It is premature to say, as President Trump put it this past week, that ‘In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS.’”
When outbreaks happen in Europe or Asia–because they will even in the most guarded communities–the reaction is more like New Zealand’s: It’s immediate and uncompromising, and public health edicts aren’t held hostage to ideological debauchery or anti-science vigilantism. We can’t say the same about Flagler, where we’ve averaged well over 100 cases a week for the last eight weeks, and still confuse immunity with acting like business as usual. Schools are all about learning to make good choices. This one fails the test.