Has the push to “open” schools been a calculated misdirection?
Yesterday, Feb 2, 2021, the tired, brow-beaten, threatened, and emotionally bruised Fairfax County School Board voted for a phased return of Fairfax students to in-building schooling between Feb. 16 and March 16.
Teachers’ organizations were left in stunned frustration as the announced vote was to be Feb. 4 and they were denied a last chance to make their case that the district wait until at least until all staff had received both doses of the vaccines.
For Fairfax, as with local superintendents, school boards, and families across the country 2020-2021 has been a long and mis/mixedinformation fraught journey.
Think tanks and the CDC have asserted repeatedly that children were at little to no risk in classrooms (provided intensive mitigation strategies). The litany, ‘children don’t get it, children don’t spread it, and if they do it’s not serious enough to worry about.’ has been the drumbeat, even when school closures and mismatches of global reports provided insufficient data to validly confirm that conclusion.
As early as July 4, 2020 Trump appointee, Paul Alexander, was urging the senior officials at Health and Human services to implement “herd immunity.” To quote his emails: “Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected…” wrote then-White House science adviser Paul Alexander in emails obtained during a House investigation and reported by Politico.
Deborah Birx said in an interview that aired on Sunday. “I saw the president presenting graphs that I never made. So, I know that someone — or someone out there or someone inside was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president.” Looking back, she now believed that Scott Atlas had provided some of the data. Trump adviser, Atlas, contradicted scientists on mitigation efforts, including the wearing of masks and practicing social distancing. Kelly Hooper 1/24/2021
Given the delays, shorted orders, and inadequate distribution of funding to all states for ppe, tracing, and testing, it is hard to argue that the federal apparatus was not working to use children as a means of unrestricted herd immunity.
It is also difficult to ignore that there is now a full-court-press to return all students to school buildings across the nation: from President Biden’s announced 100 day intention to Dr. Fauci’s multiple statements. Daily there are pieces on CNN, MSNBC, and opinion pieces in the New York Times and Washington Post stressing how important it is for children to be in school and for them to be present with their teachers although neither the teachers nor the students have been fully immunized. In Chicago and DC, districts are suing teacher’s unions to force them back into classrooms.
The social media attacks on teachers as lazy and cowardly, and on school boards and superintendents as weak, clueless, recalcitrant and even villainous have been virulent and personally vicious, particularly in localities like Fairfax where Republicans who lost the last school board elections helped lead the charge and likely saw public schools as the wedge issue that could deliver a return to power with the bonus of breaking the last standing widespread public unions.
Fairfax superintendent, Dr. Brabrand defended his plan, asserting that mitigation strategies were adequate with a stockpile of 30,000 basic 1 day masks from China for a staff of 27,000 people and 180,000 students. Consequences for non-masking have not yet been completely decided. Questions like where, when, and how teachers and students eat lunch has yet to be decided. What happens when the halls fill for class changes is up for grabs. The inability to 6ft distance on buses has not been resolved.
Dr. Brabrand insisted that of the 788 cases among the 7,000 in the small cohorts so far returned to schools, no more than 1 or 2 were school transmissions. Though it is hard for some to accept that data as reliable when Dr. Gloria Ayensu of the Fairfax health department has consistently insisted that no blanket testing be done and that contact tracing happen only based on self reporting and limited resources.
Teachers have consistently fought for a return to buildings #OnlyWhenItsSafe, but officials have relentlessly pushed to get everyone into classrooms, even during the recent highest infection, hospitalization, and death rates. Every couple of weeks for the last year, the school board held the ritual meeting of hearing another proposed plan and hearing community argue for and against it. It was exhausting.
So yesterday, the Board accepted Dr. Brabrand’s proposal to ignore the third and highest set of CDC metrics on community transmission (200/pr100k infection rates, and 10% positivity testing) and open buildings with a community infection rate of 440 and 10.4 positivity rate. The central office maintained that based on their mitigation strategies those numbers were irrelevant.
Fairfax’s decision came as a study from Philadelphia children’s hospital revealed evidence of internal vascular damage to children infected, even when asymptomatic, and in Maryland 3 recent deaths of children under ten made the news. The decision also came amid the looming news of the first case in Northern Virginia of one of the three new strains of the virus and the potential for spread and mutation when the school doors are thrown open.
So, many are breathing a sigh of relief. The decision has been made, and Fairfax will once again serve as a model for many districts across the nation.
Herd immunity wins. The taunting will stop, and only the staff affected and families with risk factors still worry.