A Letter to Our Members
Regarding Re-opening Schools and our position - Latha Krishnaier, Legislative Chair
Voices From the Pandemic
I’m sorry, but it’s a Fantasy
Jeff Gregorich, Superintendent, on trying to reopen his schools safely
By Eli Saslow
AUGUST 1, 2020
This is my choice, but I’m starting to wish that it wasn’t. I don’t feel qualified. I’ve been a superintendent for 20 years, so I guess I should be used to making decisions, but I keep getting lost in my head. I’ll be in my office looking at a blank computer screen, and then all of the sudden I realize a whole hour’s gone by. I’m worried. I’m worried about everything. Each possibility I come up with is a bad one.
About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.
The governor has told us we have to open our schools to students on August 17th, or else we miss out on five percent of our funding. I run a high-needs district in middle-of-nowhere Arizona. We’re 90 percent Hispanic and more than 90 percent free-and-reduced lunch. These kids need every dollar we can get. But covid is spreading all over this area and hitting my staff, and now it feels like there’s a gun to my head. I already lost one teacher to this virus. Do I risk opening back up even if it’s going to cost us more lives? Or do we run school remotely and end up depriving these kids?
This is your classic one-horse town Picture John Wayne riding through cactuses and all that. I’m superintendent, high school principal and sometimes the basketball referee during recess. This is a skeleton staff, and we pay an average salary of about 40,000 a year. I’ve got nothing to cut. We’re buying new programs for virtual learning and trying to get hotspots and iPads for all our kids. Five percent of our budget is hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where’s that going to come from? I might lose teaching positions or basic curriculum unless we somehow get up and running.
I’ve been in the building every day, sanitizing doors and measuring out space in classrooms. We still haven’t received our order of Plexiglas barriers, so we’re cutting up shower curtains and trying to make do with that. It’s one obstacle after the next. Just last week I found out we had another staff member who tested positive, so I went through the guidance from OSHA and the CDC and tried to figure out the protocols. I’m not an expert at any of this, but I did my best with the contact tracing. I called 10 people on staff and told them they’d had a possible exposure. I arranged separate cars and got us all to the testing site. Some of my staff members were crying. They’ve seen what can happen, and they’re coming to me with questions I can’t always answer. “Does my whole family need to get tested?” “How long do I have to quarantine?” “What if this virus hits me like it did Mrs. Byrd?”
We got back two of those tests already — both positive. We’re still waiting on eight more. That makes 11 percent of my staff that’s gotten covid, and we haven’t had a single student in our buildings since March. Part of our facility is closed down for decontamination, but we don’t have anyone left to decontaminate it unless I want to put on my hazmat suit and go in there. We’ve seen the impacts of this virus on our maintenance department, on transportation, on food service, on faculty. It’s like this district is shutting down case by case. I don’t understand how anyone could expect us to reopen the building this month in a way that feels safe. It’s like they’re telling us: “Okay. Summer’s over. It’s been long enough. Time to get back to normal.” But since when has this virus operated on our schedule?
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. We only have 300 students in this district, and they’re like family. My wife is a teacher here, and we had four kids go through these schools. I know whose parents are laid off from the copper mine and who doesn’t have enough to eat. We delivered breakfast and lunches this summer, and we gave out more meals each day than we have students. 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. But 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.
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.
Mrs. Byrd did everything right. She followed all the protocols. If there’s such a thing as a safe, controlled environment inside a classroom during a pandemic, that was it. We had three teachers sharing a room so they could teach a virtual summer school. They were so careful. This was back in June, when cases here were starting to spike. The kids were at home, but the teachers wanted to be together in the classroom so they could team up on the new technology. I thought that was a good idea. It’s a big room. They could watch and learn from each other. Mrs. Byrd was a master teacher. She’d been here since 1982, and she was always coming up with creative ideas. They delivered care packages to the elementary students so they could sprout beans for something hands-on at home, and then the teachers all took turns in front of the camera. All three of them wore masks. They checked their temperatures. They taught on their own devices and didn’t share anything, not even a pencil.
At first she thought it was a sinus infection. That’s what the doctor told her, but it kept getting worse. I got a call that she’d been rushed to the hospital. Her oxygen was low, and they put her on a ventilator pretty much right away. The other two teachers started feeling sick the same weekend, so they went to get tested. They both had it bad for the next month. Mrs. Byrd’s husband got it and was hospitalized. Her brother got it and passed away. Mrs. Byrd fought for a few weeks until she couldn’t anymore.
I’ve gone over it in my head a thousand times. What precautions did we miss? What more could I have done? I don’t have an answer. These were three responsible adults in an otherwise empty classroom, and they worked hard to protect each other. We still couldn’t control it. That’s what scares me.
We got the whole staff together for grief counseling. We did it virtually, over Zoom. There’s sadness, and it’s also so much fear. My wife is one of our teachers in the primary grade, and she has asthma. She was explaining to me how every kid who sees her automatically gives her a hug. They arrive in the morning — hug. Leave for recess — hug. Lunch — hug. Locker — hug. That’s all day. Even if we do everything perfectly, germs are going to spread inside a school.
We share the same space. We share the same air.A bunch of our teachers have told me they will put in for retirement if we open up this month. They’re saying: “Please don’t make us go back. This is crazy. We’re putting the whole community at risk. ”They’re right. I agree with them 100 percent.
Teachers don’t feel safe. Most parents said in a survey that they’re “very concerned” about sending their kids back to school. So why are we getting bullied into opening? This district isn’t ready to open. I can’t have more people getting sick. Why are they threatening our funding? I keep waiting for someone higher up to take this decision out of my hands and come to their senses. I’m waiting for real leadership, but maybe it’s not going to happen.
It’s the biggest decision of my career, and the one part I’m certain about is it’s going to hurt either way.
K-12 schools and colleges can reopen, but safety should come first, Fauci says
By Christina Maxouris, Holly Yan and Amir Vera, CNN
Updated 10:05 PM ET, Mon August 3, 2020
(CNN)Schools and college campuses across the country should be OK to reopen, but officials need to proceed with caution and make safety a priority, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Monday.
The default position with K-12 schools should be to reopen them, said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
There are two big reasons schools should go back to in-person learning, Fauci said Monday. Students need the psychological and nutritional benefits of being in school, and parents may have to "dramatically modify their work schedule."
"The primary consideration should always be the safety, the health of the welfare of the children, as well as the teachers and the secondary effects for spreading (to) the parents and other family members," he said.
On college campuses, Fauci said testing will be the key to reopening. Plans should include testing people before they arrive on campus, when they arrive and quarantining them for 14 days. Colleges should still proceed with caution, though.
"If done properly, it would not be a risk, but then again, you've got to be careful when you get people coming in from outside," he said. "But I think if they maintain the guidelines that are put together for people coming back, that they should be fine."
Fauci's remarks come as more than 4.7 million Americans have been infected with Covid-19, and more than 155,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins data. Despite the data, people are still not heeding warnings from officials and continue to gather in private and public places without protection like masks.
"They are ignoring the advice," said William Haseltine, chairman and president of ACCESS Health International.
President Donald Trump on Monday sent a campaign email to supporters asking them to consider wearing a mask. Campaign emails are usually used for soliciting donations.
"We are all in this together, and while I know there has been some confusion surrounding the usage of face masks, I think it's something we should all try to do when we are not able to be socially distanced from others," the email, sent by the Trump campaign and signed by the President, read.
The rare move comes after Trump avoided wearing a mask in public for months until he tweeted a photo of himself wearing one in a stark messaging pivot in July -- though footage later surfaced of Trump not wearing a mask later that day.
At least 30 states suffered higher rates of new deaths this past week compared to the previous week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
In 12 of those states, the increase in deaths was at least 50%: Washington, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Texas, Mississippi, Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Virginia, West Virginia and Alaska.
And test positivity rates -- an indicator of how rampantly a virus is spreading -- remain stubbornly high in more than 30 states.
In Gwinnett County, Georgia, where some parents protested in favor of in-person classes, at least 260 school district employees tested positive for the virus or were in contact with someone infected, a district spokeswoman said.
That announcement came days after teachers returned to classrooms for in-person pre-planning, CNN affiliate WSB reported.
Across the country, some students have already tested positive as the school year begins.
At Greenfield-Central Junior High School in Indiana, a student tested positive on the first day of class -- prompting school officials to isolate the child and start tracking who may have come into close contact with the infected student.
In Mississippi, a high school student tested positive during the first week of classes, the Corinth School District said.
On Monday, Florida reported the deaths of two more minors from Covid-19 complications. At least seven children between the ages of 5 and 17 have died from Covid-19 in Florida, according to the state's health department.
In Florida's Miami-Dade County, one of the hardest-hit places in the country, the superintendent said students will continue virtual learning until at least October.
All state-supported Covid-19 testing sites will reopen Tuesday, the Florida Division of Emergency Management said on Twitter. Sites began closing late last week because of Tropical Storm Isaias.
The in-person classes came after CDC guidelines laid out reasons for reopening schools, though it said places with significant, uncontrolled transmission of the virus should consider keeping school buildings closed.
The guidelines said children don't suffer much from coronavirus but suffer from being out of school.
The CDC guidelines also said children are less likely to spread the virus than adults -- but research suggests otherwise.
Two studies from Britain and Australia published Monday in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health highlight strategies that could be key in bringing children back to the classroom: scaled-up testing for cases, effective tracing of the contacts of those who test positive, and isolation of those who test positive or have symptoms.
Researchers in Britain found that schools could reopen safely so long as enough contact tracing is in place. Contact tracing strategies involve enough testing to find cases, isolating those people, then tracking down and quarantining their contacts.
In Australia, a team found that even though schools remained open in New South Wales between late January and early April, children and teachers did not contribute significantly to the spread of Covid-19 -- because good contact tracing and control strategies were in place.
2 more teens — in Miami-Dade and Manatee — die of COVID
BY MICHELLE MARCHANTE AND JESSICA DE LEON
Two more teenagers — a 16-year-old girl from Miami-Dade County and a 17-year-old boy from Manatee County — have died from COVID-related complications in Florida, according to health department data.
Both deaths were added to Florida’s COVID-19 death toll on Monday, according to the Florida Department of Health. The state has now had seven children confirmed to have died from the disease.
Neither of the two teens is considered a travel-related case and both had been hospitalized at some point during their illness, health records show.
The 17-year-old boy is the first known person under the age of 18 to have died from the novel coronavirus in Manatee County, according to the data.
He did not have contact with anyone who had previously tested positive for the disease, but it is still unknown if the 16-year-old girl from Miami-Dade did, according to the health department. There was no further information on the 17-year-old boy.
According to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, the 16-year-old girl died July 29 at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, although her death did not appear in state data until Monday.
The girl, who had pre-existing conditions including spina bifida and hydrocephalus, died from COVID pneumonia, the report said.
To date, the youngest child included in Florida’s COVID-19 death toll is a 9-year-old girl from Putnam County. The other deaths were an 11-year-old boy from Miami-Dade, an 11-year-old girl from Broward County, a 16-year-old girl from Lee County and a 17-year-old from Pasco County.
A 19-year-old male from Gadsden County is also included in Florida’s COVID-19 death toll, but because he is older than 18 he is not counted in the state’s pediatric report.
Children are not at higher risk for COVID-19 than adults, but they can still fall ill with the disease and require hospitalization if the condition worsens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of Monday, 38,171 children have tested positive for the disease in Florida since the pandemic began in March, according to Florida’s Department of Health. Of those, 394 have been hospitalized.
Miami Herald staff reporter Carli Teproff contributed to this report.
MICHELLE MARCHANTE: 305-376-2708, @TWEETMICHELLEM