The ongoing local and national debate about whether students should attend school strictly online or in brick-and-mortar classrooms isn’t going away. But a wide variety of data and research make a strong case that school districts should do everything they can to reopen and stay open for in-person learning.
The latest numbers in the Superintendent’s District Update, given at the January 25, 2021 Board meeting, show that approximately 75 percent of Clear Creek ISD students have returned to brick-and-mortar learning. Many are participating in extracurricular activities, like sports, fine arts, and robotics. As of the day I’m writing this (January 26), CCISD has reported 1,034 positive test results – out of 32,861 brick and mortar students and 5,480 employees. That’s less than 3 percent of the total CCISD in-person population.
It is also likely that very few of those infections were caused by transmissions that occurred in schools. Data from scientific studies, along with our own data, back up the assertion that COVID-19 is not primarily transmitted in school settings. In July 2020, an Icelandic study that sequenced genomes provided compelling evidence that children, particularly elementary school children, are not spreading COVID-19 to each other or to adults, as compared to the rate of transmission among the general population. Three more recent studies, one of which was conducted by Duke University in North Carolina, have continued to demonstrate the low risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.
The Downside of School Closures
Meanwhile, closing in-person schooling has proven to have a highly detrimental effect on our children. While we’re still waiting for conclusive numbers, reports from a variety of sources indicate that children are suffering from severe mental health issues. The latest round of news, this time from Las Vegas schools, shows that 18 children have taken their own lives through December, and 3,100 alerts regarding possible self-harm were generated. In September 2020, Cook Children’s Medical Center in Ft. Worth reported that it had admitted nearly one juvenile patient per day for attempted suicide. There are many other documented examples of student mental health issues and drug abuse during the pandemic, but there is no question that school closures and the isolation and depression that follow are leading to a sharp increase in suicide and drug overdoses in pediatric patients.
For special education students, the effects of school closures are devastating. Those with severe disabilities are hit the hardest; nonverbal and partially verbal children cannot receive the services they need through online learning. Any child with an IEP wasn’t getting services: students who are on the autism spectrum, students with dyslexia, students who are deaf and hard of hearing, and more. It is heartbreaking to think of the regression that so many of them faced as their parents struggled to be teachers and therapists rolled into one.
I’ve spoken to so many parents with stories like these, and I want you to know that I hear you. I am listening. And as a Trustee, I will fight to keep our schools open for brick-and-mortar learning and to make sure your children are in the classroom getting the education they are legally entitled to under the Texas Constitution.
Revisiting Existing Protocols
One of the issues in front of us are existing COVID-19 protocols. In speaking with parents and students, as well as monitoring the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, I’ve seen a lot of students and staff quarantined. Children are going to school with the threat of quarantine hanging over their heads for something as innocuous as sitting near a (fully masked) classmate during lessons.
I believe that we need to revisit quarantine protocols, particularly since we haven’t seen large clusters of COVID-19 cases at the elementary and intermediate school levels. For example, as part of its quarantine protocol, Friendswood ISD considers mitigating factors like the use of face coverings before automatically quarantining students. As of January 25, Friendswood ISD has had 293 cumulative cases out of 6,097 students and 790 staff, or just a hair over four percent of the population.
We are continually learning more about how COVID-19 is transmitted and how it manifests in the body. More studies are being conducted as we speak, but as we’re seeing around the globe, perhaps we’re letting our own fear get in the way of what’s best for our children. We may not need to quarantine every healthy child that came within six feet of another child that tested positive. We may not need to mandate constant mask wearing. And we may find that we don’t need to cancel extracurriculars and sports, particularly considering the many benefits that participation brings to children.
Let me make it very clear that I do not believe these decisions should be made lightly. As a Trustee, I will examine the evidence, including peer-reviewed scientific studies, before voting on COVID-19 policy changes. I would want fact-based, research-driven input from the medical and scientific community, and to hear from parents, students, staff, and community members. This may mean a new committee is formed.
However we go forward, one thing is very clear: we need to act in the best interest of the children – every child in the district – and ensure facts prevail over fears. On May 1, I humbly ask for your vote so that we can preserve the quality of our children’s education, mental health, and sense of normalcy.