Monday, July 27, 2020

Open the schools, part 2

The Baltimore Sun published my op-ed in May, but it did not run my letter to the editor I submitted 10 days ago. Here is the letter:
As counties roll out their school re-opening plans, parents have learned that the state will not allow children to attend school five days per week. Apparently the state board of education has decided that five-day school is a Stage Three “high risk” activity on par with events in large entertainment venues. 
That decision is perplexing, as it has no basis in evidence. The research overwhelmingly shows that children are less susceptible to the virus and less likely to transmit it. Schools have opened in Europe with little problem, and elementary schools are especially safe. 
The decision is perplexing for another reason as well: It was never mentioned in Maryland’s “Roadmap to Recovery” or in the model plan from the American Enterprise Institute. Indeed, the ban on five-day school simply does not square with the rest of Maryland policy. For example, according to the Roadmap’s Stage Two rules that we currently live under, adults can make daily trips to the gym where they breathe heavily amidst a varying group of strangers. And yet five-day school is too risky? 
We need a school policy that is both grounded in scientific evidence and consistent with the Roadmap. Right now we have neither. I urge the governor’s office to step in and re-evaluate.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Open the schools

Back in May, I wrote a piece for the Baltimore Sun lamenting the closure of schools in my home state of Maryland. I remained hopeful for the fall, but now Maryland seems to have moved five-day-per-week school into a third-stage "high risk" category that includes events at large entertainment venues. This decision has no rational basis.

What follows is the public comment I submitted to the school board after it announced that students will attend only two days per week. It's a bit of a rush-job, but I think it gets the main points across:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Board’s plan for school re-opening. As a father of two school-age children, I respectfully ask that you consider a more normal school schedule – five days per week, with no masks required for children.

In reading through the guidelines published by the state and the county, I am concerned that the Board  may be so focused on logistics that it has lost sight of the big-picture evidence. I will try to summarize that evidence here:

·       Children are far less susceptible to COVID-19.

The rate of school-age Marylanders who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 is less than six in 100,000, compared to 480 in 100,000 among the elderly. Moreover, out of the 3,202 Marylanders whose deaths have been attributed to the virus as of July 14, only one – a 15-year-old in Baltimore -- was under the age of 20.

Children are also less likely to spread the virus to others. The evidence “consistently demonstrates reduced infection and infectivity of children in the transmission chain,” according to The Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health in the United Kingdom. Reports from Denmark and Sweden find that teachers are not at a high risk of exposure compared to other occupational groups.

·       School closures have minimal effect on viral spread.

“Currently, the evidence to support national closure of schools to combat COVID-19 is very weak,” according to a recent review in The Lancet, which went on to note that “school closures could have relatively small effects” given the characteristics of COVID-19.

“We found no evidence that school closures influenced the growth rate in confirmed COVID-19 cases,” according to a more recent study in Health Affairs.

·       Elementary schools are especially safe.

Schools have opened in Europe with little problem. Some isolated outbreaks have occurred in secondary schools, but not elementary schools. If school attendance must be restricted, the restrictions should be on the upper grades only. I can think of no reason why elementary students should be subject to the same rules as high school students.

·       If adults can go to indoor gyms, children can go to school.

Given the evidence above, it is entirely inappropriate to classify five-day school as a third-stage “high risk” activity on par with events in large entertainment venues. A group of 20 to 30 children in a classroom is simply not comparable to thousands of adults crowded together indoors. Even second-stage “medium risk” activities that are currently allowed, such as indoor fitness classes, are likely to be far more risky than operating a classroom five days per week.

·       Masks impede learning.

Masks are uncomfortable, distracting, and potentially dangerous if not worn properly and cleaned regularly. More importantly, schools are social environments where children learn to interact with each other. Masks block that key interchange by concealing facial expressions. “Face masks are not required or recommended for children returning to school,” according to official guidance from the Hospital for Sick Children.

·       Maryland’s virus situation has improved since early summer.

Since the Board made its decision on June 17 to pursue a two-day-per-week plan, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have dropped from 702 to 415. ICU beds devoted to COVID-19 patients have fallen by more than half, from 283 to 118. Positive test rates are now consistently under 5 percent. In short, the state has become far better equipped to contain the virus than it was earlier in the summer.  School plans should be adjusted to reflect this progress.

·       Calvert can be more open than the average Maryland county.

As a low-density, semi-rural county, Calvert is naturally less susceptible to viral spread than other parts of Maryland. The mortality rate here is 4.5 times lower than the state as a whole. The 11 Calvert residents who have died with COVID-19 were all age-55 or over and had “at least one chronic health condition.”

I understand that you are bound to some extent by state guidelines. However, the Roadmap to Recovery advises that “some regional (or county-by-county) approaches may be contemplated as the recovery moves forward.” The Board should try to work with the state to develop a more flexible policy on school re-openings for the less-risky counties.

·       Children will mix together anyway on non-school days.

Many children will attend daycare on the days that they do not go to school. At daycare they will mix with children who are not part of their two-day school rotation group, reducing the effectiveness of the split-week approach for viral containment.

Again, thank you for your consideration of these points.

Jason Richwine