empty classroom desks

This could still be our reality this fall.

Image: Flickr/dcJohn

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember, but this was supposed to be Washington’s respite from the coronavirus pandemic. As recently as late spring, models estimated our July and August Covid-19 death toll would be close to zilch. The projections stoked more than just our hopes of salvaging patio season; way more importantly, they informed our optimism for reopening schools in the fall. Sure, cases might rise when the weather cooled off and flu season arrived. But at least schools could return in September with a clean coronavirus slate.

The odds of that happening now are depressingly slim. King County infections have climbed to early April levels—just weeks after the state closed schools—and our Safe Start phased recovery may be in rewind. Part of the reason for that? Governor Jay Inslee still wants to see school buildings reopen this fall, and severe social distancing restrictions are likely the only path to achieving that goal. 

A recent report from the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue also stresses the importance of social distancing, but it’s less confident than the governor about schools returning. Authored by Jamie Cohen, Dina Mistry, Cliff Kerr, and Mike Famulare, the paper lays out possible scenarios for school sites reopening this fall and assesses their likelihood of spreading the disease. The research only took King County data through mid-June into account, when mobility was at 65 percent of normal and case counts were lower than they are today. Back then, it looked as if we might be able to open some schools with some combination of social distancing, masks, classroom cohorting ("grouping students by age and class and limiting their contact outside their cohort"), contact tracing, and other measures. Basically, if we kept our activity at 70 percent or less of pre-pandemic levels, we could maybe pull off a safe school year with these precautions in place. Above that? “No amount of school intervention will prevent the epidemic from growing,” the report notes. 

Unfortunately, as the report’s authors acknowledge, the situation has taken a turn for the worse since the model made those calculations. “Recent case data collected since this report was drafted indicate that levels of disease activity following the move to Phase II are too high to support school reopening at this time,” the paper concludes. “Thus community-wide mitigation efforts must improve significantly such that the effective reproductive number is below 1 at the end of August for schools to reopen in September without triggering exponential growth in Covid-19 burden.” In King County, the effective reproductive number, or the average amount of people an infectious host spreads the disease to, was at 1.7 as of July 14.

"Everyone needs to understand that if we continue to head in the wrong direction it will be extremely difficult to bring students back to school," says Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health—Seattle and King County. "Everyone needs to reset their thinking about going about their lives in the era of COVID-19." Translation: That boozy brunch with friends really isn't necessary in the grand scheme.

The report comes with important caveats—models are fallible, of course (see the top of this story), and we still don’t know how much impact school closures had on the state’s coronavirus response or students’ vulnerability to the illness. Additionally, the model didn’t factor in a hybrid in-person and distance learning model that Seattle Public Schools is weighing.

But even the part-time physical class option seems unlikely to fly if Covid-19 continues to spread. Beyond parents’ concerns for their children’s wellbeing, teachers and staff must also be protected, foremost for health reasons—some educators are at a high risk of suffering a severe case of Covid-19—but also for practical ones: If instructors get sick, their classes will stagnate while they convalesce.

Even in a completely remote environment, teacher absences could still stunt learning. The only way, then, to rescue a functional school year (and provide some much-needed help for parents, and address significant equity issues) will be to reinstate stricter social distancing measures and adhere to them. We love to talk about how much our children’s education matters to us. Now’s the time to prove it.

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