The following is an open letter to the Los Alamos School Board:
We were sad to hear that there are teachers who feel that their lives are in jeopardy if our children return to school in person. We recognize that we are currently living through a global pandemic, and as such, we as a community hold each other’s lives in our hands through our combined response to the pandemic. We value all lives in our community—teachers, students, parents, neighbors, friends, and relatives.
The decisions we make regarding schools will affect all of us, not just teachers. While teachers are in the classroom, if there is rampant spread in a school, we will all be affected, and we can all be potentially exposed. Inherent in any decision we make will be a degree of risk to all involved—teachers, students, and parents. Just as it is essential to listen to the experts with regards to the seriousness of COVID-19, we also need to listen to their advice about how to safely move forward with those aspects of life that are truly essential, such as educating our children. Decisions should be made based on the risk we face here in Los Alamos—not the risk in other places in the country, or even other places around our state.
Currently, Los Alamos has three active cases (new cases within the last two weeks). That effectively gives us a 0.0158% (3/18988) infection rate in town (population of Los Alamos was 18,988 as of 2018). It should bring comfort to all of us as we embark on in-person learning that the low infection rate translates into extremely low risk. The figure below shows a risk calculator supplied by National Geographic[i] where the user can input parameters matching local conditions. Considering that our schools will be supplied with air filters (as required by the state) and that cohorts will be very small, and all students and teachers will be wearing masks, our classrooms are likely best reflected by the energy-efficient office model which shows essentially 0% chance of infection after three hours of time in the space. Additionally, the worst-case scenario (the indoor gathering graph) also has incredibly low risk. (Please note that this calculator does not allow you to set the infection rate to 0.02%. That means that our risk is slightly higher than what is shown in the graph.)
It is important for all of us in the community to not let fear of what is happening in other parts of the country prevent us from moving forward with in-person learning. Extensive data about the effect of opening schools from other districts around the nation who have been holding in-person school for two months is available. This data should also comfort us as we move forward with the hybrid model since it shows that schools are not super-spreaders[ii], and elementary schools in particular seem to have very low levels of spread. Even in areas where there are very high case numbers in the community, they are not seeing exponential spread in the schools. A study by the Pasteur Institute of selected French schools with an initial infection rate of 8.8% concluded, “it appears that the children did not spread the infection to other students or to teachers or other staff at the schools…. The results are reassuring in view of the reopening of primary schools…”[iii]
We are cognizant that returning to in-person school is not a zero-risk proposition. In all likelihood there will be some increase in infection rates in town. Even if we double our infection rate from about 0.02% to 0.04%, we can still safely restart school. Also, keep in mind that those numbers represent infection rate. According to Johns Hopkins University, the observed case-mortality rate is 2.8%, which makes the current risk of lives being in jeopardy about 0.00044% (0.000158 x .028 x 100). For perspective, the percentage of people who die each year in car accidents is 0.01% (11.2 deaths per 100,000 people in the US). Therefore, the risk of death from COVID-19, given our community’s low case rate, is on par with other routinely accepted risks.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said, “The default principle should be to try as best you can to get the children back to school…the big, however, and qualifier in there is that you have to have a degree of flexibility. The flexibility means if you look at the map of our country, we are not unidimensional with regard to the level of infection.” For areas, such as Los Alamos, with well-controlled, extremely low case numbers, he recommended that “you can get back to school with the kinds of precautions that you do in general society.”
Our district’s hybrid plan is more cautious than Dr. Fauci recommends as Dr. Fauci said hybrid should be used in areas where the virus is “smoldering” (i.e., not low). In a Washington Post interview, Dr. Fauci also warned about the “’need to protect the psychological and physical well-being of children’ — especially those who ‘rely heavily on school for proper nutrition’ — and to prevent ‘a negative downstream ripple effect’ of parents being overburdened if schools remain shuttered.”[iv]
Every aspect of our lives has risk. We ask teachers, district leadership, and the school board to weigh the risk of COVID-19 with the adverse ripple effects currently experienced by students and families during remote learning. While remote learning does prevent viral spread, it is not, and should not be considered an equal or adequate substitute for in-person learning. Many teachers are doing an excellent job presenting information, but it is yet to be seen if students are actually absorbing the material being presented. There are significantly fewer opportunities to monitor progress or correct students as they work. Students are missing out on social learning that is essential to age-appropriate development. Families are experiencing stress at unprecedented levels. While we know that the governor said “No one’s life is worth the risk,” we have to be smart about how we measure risk and recognize that there is risk no matter which path we go down. The American Association of Pediatrics said, “Finally, policy makers and school administrators should acknowledge that COVID-19 policies are intended to mitigate, not eliminate, risk.”
If we continue with remote learning despite the low case counts in our community, we take on the risk of students falling a year behind in school, the achievement gap increasing between wealthy students and at-risk students, mental health issues becoming more frequent among our entire population, but particularly among our children and teens, parents buckling under the burden of trying to work and educate their children, and some children going hungry. These risks are real and have real consequences.
As parents, we are committed to being good community members as our kids start attending school. It is in all of our best interest to keep the spread of COVID-19 low in our town, so we will wear masks and social distance when in public. We will monitor our children’s health and keep them home if they show signs of illness. We will quarantine if we have been exposed. We will do our part so that teachers know we value their safety as much was we value the opportunity for kids to attend school in person.
We ask that as the decision about whether or not to delay the start of hybrid learning is once again addressed, that you look at the data, and consider all the risks associated with remote learning as well as the risks of spreading COVID-19. We ask that you adhere to your well-thought out and science-based plan. We ask that you not postpone the hybrid model any more. We are ready. Schools are ready. Most teachers are ready. Most of all, our kids are ready.
Bethany and Justin Scott