A growing body of evidence indicates that schools are likely to be major sources of outbreaks and that children are not as invulnerable to COVID-19 as once thought.
President Donald Trump on Monday reiterated his call to reopen schools, even as teachers, parents, and children continue to express fear of returning for in-person instruction.
“Cases up because of BIG Testing! Much of our Country is doing very well. Open the Schools!,” Trump wrote in a tweet.
Trump’s latest push to reopen classrooms comes just days after the U.S. passed the grim milestone of 150,000 deaths from COVID-19. It also ignores a growing body of evidence indicating that schools are likely to be major sources of outbreaks and that children are not as invulnerable to COVID-19 as once thought.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report finding that at least 260 campers and staff—including 231 minors—at an overnight camp in Georgia tested positive with COVID-19, representing a 76% positivity rate of the 344 attendees for whom test results were available.
More than half (51%) of campers between the ages of 6-10 years old tested positive, while 44% between the ages of 11-17 tested positive, and one-third of those aged 18-21 tested positive. These numbers, while staggering, are also likely an underestimate, because cases may have been missed among those not tested or whose test results were not reported.
The study’s findings contradict the hypothesis made by some public health officials that children were less likely than adults to fall sick or transmit the virus—a talking point President Trump has capitalized on to push schools to reopen.
“They don’t catch it easily, they don’t bring it home easily,” Trump said at the White House on July 22. “And if they do catch it, they get better fast.”
While there is still data indicating children are less likely to become severely ill or die from COVID-19, the CDC report’s authors determined that they can play a key role in spreading the virus. “This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to [COVID-19] infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission,” the study concluded.
The risk of children spreading COVID-19 is already playing out in public schools. The Indianapolis Star reported on Saturday that a student at Greenfield Central Junior High School in Indiana tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the school to go into emergency protocol on the first day of in-person classes. Prior to the positive test result, that student had walked through the school’s hallways and sat in several classrooms, exposing an undetermined number of people to the virus.
Of course, it’s not just students who can spread the virus at school, but teachers and staff. On Sunday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that roughly 260 Gwinnett County Public School employees had either been diagnosed with COVID-19 or exposed to someone with COVID-19. Those staff members are being excluded from work as the county moves forward with its plan to require teachers to teach from school buildings, even as they’re beginning the year with entirely online classes.
Together, these reports underscore the grim reality of Trump’s push to reopen schools: No matter how much students, parents, and teachers might want to get back to normal and understand the risks of keeping students at home, it’s simply not safe to reopen.
“I dream about going back to normal. I’d love to be open. These kids are hurting right now. I don’t need a politician to tell me that,” Jeff Gregorich, a school superintendent in Arizona, told the Washington Post. “I get phone calls from families dealing with poverty issues, depression, loneliness, boredom. Some of these kids are out in the wilderness right now, and school is the best place for them. We all agree on that.”
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But where he and those behind the push to reopen disagree is on the safety of reopening. Gregorich, who has already lost one teacher to COVID-19, is worried that he is being forced to choose between reopening and potentially causing more deaths, and running an online curriculum which deprives his students of a proper education. “It feels like there’s a gun to my head,” he said.
In a decision that mirrors the approach of Senate Republicans—who last week introduced a bill making more than $45 billion in education funding contingent on schools reopening—Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has tied new education funding to schools reopening for in-person classes. This means that if Gregorich doesn’t reopen his schools, he risks losing 5% of their funding, a devastating cut for his high-needs district where more than 90% of students qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch.
The decision haunts Gregorich and the fact that he’s being threatened and “bullied into opening” has left him frustrated and deeply worried.
“Every time I start to play out what that looks like on August 17th, I get sick to my stomach. More than a quarter of our students live with grandparents. These kids could very easily catch this virus, spread it and bring it back home. It’s not safe. There’s no way it can be safe,” he told the Post. “If you think anything else, I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy. Kids will get sick, or worse. Family members will die. Teachers will die.”