Like canaries in a coal mine

“There are going to be infections in the schools whether it’s students or staff or both. It’s almost inevitable,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. She said “at least half “ of the 30,000 recent new infections in TN are community spread and contact tracing isn’t working.

Third in a series tracking how the nation, the state, and Nashville responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN —The school year will begin in a couple of weeks but in four of the  nation’s largest school districts, children will not be attending in person. Schools in Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, and Prince George’s County, MD. will be virtual. Schools in Nashville, Memphis, and Denver will also open remotely. In many places, COVID-19 infections are so high, local leaders do not think schools can reopen safely. 

President Trump has demanded that schools reopen five days a week or face cuts in federal education funding.

“You know, the president has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open.  And when he says open, he means open in full — kids being able to attend each and every day at their school,” said White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany last week. 

“The science should not stand in the way of this,” she added. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been sidelined lately, was on C-SPAN last week, saying some schools could reopen safely in person but only in places where there are few cases and infection rates are low. Mixed messages make for confusing communication from the White House. 

“Schools should be opened. Kids want to go to school. You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed,” Trump said recently.  

Just the opposite is true. In the last two weeks new cases have increased in 43 states including Tennessee, new deaths have increased in 26 states including Tennessee. These disturbing facts contradict Trump’s unhinged thinking about the coronavirus and the nice picture he tries to paint from the Rose Garden.

An ER physician and public health professor at George Washington University says the worst is still to come. “I fear that at this point we are not even seeing the peak of this epidemic,” said Dr. Leana Wen. 

Here is part of an exchange between CNN’s Dana Bash and Betsy Devos on Sunday, July 12. It shows how Trump’s delusional thinking has infected officials in his administration as well as several Republican governors in the South and West.

DANA BASH: You’re the Secretary of Education. You’re asking students to go back. So, why do you not have guidance on what a school should do, just weeks before you want those schools to reopen? And what happens if it faces an outbreak?

Education Secretary Betsy Devos dissembled for a couple of minutes but Bash forced her back on topic. 

BASH: OK, but I’m not hearing a plan from the Department of Education. Do you have a plan?

EDUCATION SECRETARY BETSY DEVOS: But — but the — the plan —

BASH: — for what students and what schools should do?

DEVOS: So, schools should do what’s right on the ground at that time for their students and for their situation. There is no one uniform approach that we can take or should take nationwide.

BASH: But you are arguing, over and over, that they should handle this on a local level, but at the same time, as the secretary of education, you are trying to push them to do a one-size-fits-all approach, which is go back and reopen schools. You can’t have it both ways.

DEVOS: I am urging all schools to be — to open and to providing their students a full-time education.

Tennessee’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey has three children who attend public schools. “High schools start on August 3 and they will be there on time that day,” she said.  In her day job, Piercey keeps tabs on infection rates and hospital beds. As the virus continues to spread, contact tracing of infections is not going well. “At least half if not more are community spread and you can’t find the source,” Piercey told reporters last week. 

 “I want there to be a systematic method of what to do when things will happen, and let me guarantee you, things are going to happen. There are going to be infections in the schools whether it’s students or staff or both. It’s almost inevitable,” she said.

That would give any mother pause before sending her kids to school but Piercey soldiers on sounding a lot like Betsy Devos.  

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) announced guidelines for reopening schools that drew criticism from the White House for being too strict and too expensive.  They called mostly for increased and regular testing.

The CDC immediately announced it would revise its guidelines, which call for staggered scheduling, new seating arrangements to encourage social distancing, the use of face coverings and the closing of communal spaces. 

According to the Council of Great City Schools, Trump is right about one thing: it’s going to cost a lot of money to reopen schools safely. In May, 62 school superintendents from major urban school districts sent a letter to Congress asking for an increase of $202 billion in federal aid to schools to help them reopen this Fall.

The Heroes Act that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) steadfastly refuses to put to a vote has some relief for local governments and schools. 

The CARES Act provided some education funds and Governor Bill Lee just announced $61 million in grants to help reopen Tennessee schools. But that is a small down payment on what will be needed even if the Heroes Act passes.

It will take a lot to keep school children safe in the midst of a pandemic. 

For example, classes will have to take place in classrooms with windows that open to let air flow. Classrooms on the first floors without windows will have to close. Class sizes will likely have to be cut in half. That means more classrooms will be needed as well as more teachers and aides to teach in them. But there are fewer of them. Budget shortfalls have forced layoffs in many districts.

Schools will need nurses, with thermometers, and space to examine and isolate sick kids until they can be picked up. Cleaning staffs will have to be beefed up and a lot of disinfectants will be needed. PPEs will be needed by the millions. Anything less and it’s a game of Russian Roulette with kids.

As infections continue to rise in more than half of Tennessee counties, a group of Tennessee doctors urged leaders not to rush reopening schools. More than 2,000 health care workers and small business owners are members of ProtectMyCare. They want Governor Bill Lee to issue a statewide mandate on wearing masks in public. They called Lee

Dr. Amy Gordon Bono said the coronavirus
is worse than ever in Tennessee. Bono is a
primary care physician and holds a MS in
Public Health. “Reopening schools under these circumstances is insane and irresponsible,” she said.

irresponsible for letting hospital executives take over planning for a resurgence of the pandemic that was caused by his reckless decision to open up the economy too soon. 

“There aren’t any shortcuts. We really need to listen to the scientists, the epidemiologists,” said Dr. Susan Andrews, a primary care physician in Murfreesboro. 

“We should not rush to reopen our schools without a cautious and comprehensive community plan to reduce the spread of coronavirus,” said Dr. Amy Gordon Bono.

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