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Science Magazine Article on Reopening Full of Equivocations… But One Irrefutable Conclusion CAN be Drawn

July 19, 2020
My cousin who works for NASA shared an article from Science magazine that described how several countries reopen their schools. In her email that accompanied the link to the article, she expressed her hope that school boards and teachers were getting the kind of information included in the article. Here is a lightly edited version of the email I wrote back:
I know that local school boards and teachers are getting this sort of information— and a lot more. New Hampshire just released its 56 page “Back to School Guidance“— which included 10 pages of links to resources and to other State’s reopening plans. But because the “science” on this issue is often equivocal it doesn’t really help. If you go through the Science article it seems that every “conclusion” is hedged with a phrase like “…it’s hard to know”, “…it’s hard to be sure”, “…data suggest”, “No one knows”, “the picture is still blurry”, “it’s still a bit speculative”, “Data about the outcomes are scarce”.
There were some statements, though, that were unequivocal (with my emphasis added):
“Outbreaks in schools are inevitable,” says Otto Helve, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. “But there is good news.” So far, with some changes to schools’ daily routines, he says, the benefits of attending school seem to outweigh the risks—at least where community infection rates are low and officials are standing by to identify and isolate cases and close contacts.
 Several teachers have died of COVID-19 complications in Sweden, where schools did not modify class sizes or make other substantive adjustments.
And last but not least… 
Many low-income countries lack the resources to shrink class sizes or provide everyone with masks and so are hesitant to reopen in the midst of a pandemic.
The conditions needed to reopen successfully, based on these assertions are:
  • School routines need to change 
  • The community infection rates need to be low and officials should be able to respond if there is a case 
  • Communities that do not have the resources to shrink class size or provide masks are hesitant to reopen.
One would think that in a high income country like ours funding would be provided to schools so that they could modify their local routines and offer the “officials” to “stand by to identify and isolate cases and close contacts“…. but we seem to live in a country where the President sees the pandemic as a problem for States to address and, according to his latest thinking, a country that doesn’t even need to systematically collect data to help the states. 

It is no accident that New Hampshire issued “Guidelines”, because our state believes that any mandate requires funding. Guidelines, though are a local determination. The State guidelines call for a nurse in every school but whether a nurse is available daily or “on call” is a local determination… and that determination is ALWAYS based on whether the community can afford it or not.

The Science article doesn’t provide information on how the countries who reopened funded their changes in daily routines… but my hunch is that their national government provided the money… they didn’t rely on a hodge-podge of local and state revenues. My three big issues with our national pandemic response are:
  • We needed a robust FEDERAL science-based response 
  • We needed FEDERAL funds provided to mitigate losses in state revenues due to the economic downturn
  • We needed a message of unity and compassion from leaders at all levels
We didn’t get any of the above so far and, from what I’ve read, it doesn’t look like the next round of stimulus dollars are going to help. The last round of stimulus check, though, DID provide a way for banks to collect $18,000,000,000 in fees. 
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