If We Reopen Schools, We Admit That Community Safety Is Not Our Priority

A simple family moment this week revealed to me how thoroughly unprepared this country is to send its children back to school while COVID-19 still rages unchecked across the land. I needed little convincing before this happened, but afterward, I was surer than ever that calamity and failure awaits us if we swing the school doors open next month.

It started, as most things do in my home, with my kid trying to pull one of the oldest tricks in the book. My daughter said she had a tummy ache, and I was skeptical. The afternoon before, she’d gone on and on about not wanting to go to summer camp anymore, so the stomach discomfort the following morning seemed exceptionally convenient.

Here in the far corner of southwest New Hampshire, COVID is as gratefully contained as anywhere in the nation. While an ominous uptick in new cases is happening on the eastern side of the state due to its beaches and proximity to Boston, our county has been in the green for weeks.

Long enough, we decided, that it was safe to send our daughter to camp. Like every other kid in the country, she had spent March to July like a bug in a bottle, and the isolation was taking a noticeable emotional toll. She needed other kids, and other kids needed her. We were exceedingly fortunate to have the opportunity in a time when so many regions do not.

The camp we sent her to is almost deliberately designed to thwart the virus: Outside all the time on a working farm even in the rain, lots of play in the running water of a creek, children in small groups, counselors masked and constantly cleaning, and an absolute ace of a camp director at the helm. In terms of brick-and-mortar facility comparisons, the camp is the binary opposite of the school buildings in the district, all fresh air and sunlight.

The tummy ache presented a pressing dilemma. In the Before Times, what Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce calls the days before COVID, it would have been a no-brainer: Some time on the potty with a warning that staying home from camp meant a day staying in bed, some pediatric meds and water, and off we would go. I was born in the day, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

Nausea, however, is dead-bang in the middle of the list of COVID symptoms. Before they let her in at camp, they ask if she’s been out of state, if she has sniffles or a stomach ache, and they take her temperature. I was sure she wasn’t sick… wasn’t I? No fever, no cough or sniffles, she could taste her food, but a shadow of doubt lingered. Should I frighten her with the potential consequences of crying sick wolf in the middle of a pandemic? What a miserable thing to do to a child.

I decided to bring her to camp, but consulted her counselors before letting her out of the car. They confirmed she had spent the previous two afternoons singing the “I want to go home” song well before pick-up time, which buttressed my sense that her digestive complaint wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. They took her temperature, she was clear, and so off she went.

I got maybe two miles down the road when my phone rang, camp director on the other line, with a message of “Nope” for Daddy. As it turns out, two other campers had been sent home with similar stomach troubles, apparently a tummy bug was making the rounds, and the camp was properly taking zero chances. I turned around, collected my daughter, and consigned her to bed for the remainder of the day. Her recovery was unsurprisingly remarkable.

Now, paint that picture in the confined enclosure of a full-capacity elementary school in bleak November, where the germs and viruses run wild even on the best of days.

A student says she has a stomach ache and gets sent home, but what of the other kids? COVID tests are taking days to return for those of us who are not rich or pro athletes. What if it actually was COVID affecting that kid’s stomach? Does her whole class need to be quarantined? Her teachers, too? Do they all need to be tested? The whole school? How?

If one kid with a tummy ache — faked or genuine — can create this unmanageable scenario, schools are not ready to reopen. Period, end of file.

WMUR, the local TV station here, recently posited a question to school administrators about a similar scenario: “If a student or a teacher tests positive for COVID-19, will the entire class be required to quarantine for 14 days?”

The “answer” provided is one of the more dramatic examples of bureaucratic no-speak you’re ever likely to come across:

One of the most important questions and one of the most important factors in our guidance is our schools having a robust response plan. And it’s really going to be dependent on the circumstances in the school — if a teacher quarantines, if that class quarantines. Perhaps it’s even a wing of school or maybe even a whole school.

So, we’ve asked schools to have really dynamic plans that will include working directly with Health and Human Services to give them guidance in terms of how they should respond to that when they do have to respond. We are also working with them so they can nimbly continue to offer educational opportunities both for the teachers to teach and the students to learn during that quarantine period.

Raise your hand if you find that a satisfactory “plan” weeks before the bell rings. Yeah, me neither.

I don’t blame the administrator who crafted that reply. All over the country, school districts have been utterly abandoned, denied necessary funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essentials, even as the days tick by. These people are trying to swim the rapids with their hands and feet tied behind them. That they are sinking beneath the burden is as predictable as the sunrise.

“After putting our lives on hold for what, by the time school starts, will be nearly half a year, parents and teachers are now in the position of fighting tooth and nail for an outcome we never wanted,” writes Dana Stevens in a furious Washington Post editorial. “Most of us are resigned to go back to the hell of online learning, because the only alternative our leaders have left us with is even worse. Their baldfaced abandonment of American families is only one reason among many to wake up every morning ablaze with righteous anger.”

One gets the sense that many districts are waiting for the teachers to make the no-reopen decision for them by refusing to come to work in a dangerous environment. The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teacher’s union in the country, announced Tuesday it would approve a strike “in districts and states that move to reopen classrooms without adequate health and safety measures,” according to The New York Times. Three cheers for the teachers.

“[C]lassrooms without adequate health and safety measures” covers most of the populated portions of the country right now. Even in my district, with the green numbers in our county, it would be perfectly Trumpian magical thinking to believe that how it is here now is how it shall ever be. COVID has proven that premise wrong time and again to monstrously lethal effect, and winter is coming.

If a kid with a tummy ache presents unanswerable dilemmas in the face of a murderous pandemic, it is deadly folly to believe we can get away with reopening schools under the present circumstances. Absent a rapid and effective testing regimen, proper funding for comprehensive PPE, and in the face of an infection spike that is devouring much of the country, to do so invites an unimaginable horror into our schools and homes. We are not ready.