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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Nothing moves faster than infections in schools

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I have never been a teacher, but I am a parent, and, while it’s been a while, I’ve seen the way pinkeye can infect almost everyone in a daycare or classroom despite everyone’s best efforts.

I’m not a public health expert either, but I have managed newsrooms, and watched the staff able to come to work be decimated by a rapidly spreading respiratory seasonal flu. (And, mind you, that’s adults, all well aware of the need to regularly wash their hands and cover every single sneeze.)

Anyone with children has had the experience of having a gastrointestinal bug rip through their household. Even if you try your very best to be careful, you’re still likely to end up with everyone flat on their backs and every bathroom overwhelmed.

What’s a group of school aged kids in a classroom called? A petri dish.

And that’s why I’m hardly surprised that, while working parents need the stability of schools reopening despite the continuing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone’s not convinced. (To be clear, having to care for children during the pandemic shutdown has been a huge strain on families, and a strain disproportionately borne by women. Somewhere there’s a necessary balance, but finding that balance isn’t without sleepless nights.)

On Thursday, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association put it rather delicately: “The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association is noticing an increase in the level of interest in home schooling and is questioning whether this is a vote of non-confidence in the government’s K-12 Education Re-entry Plan.”

Sorry, but that’s a penetrating insight into the painfully obvious.

Because parents are well aware that far less infectious illnesses — and everything else — power through schools like nobody’s business. Just think about the sinking feeling you have, if you’ve ever gotten it, when the letter comes home from school about a lice outbreak. Because you know there’s a good chance it’s going to be coming to your house.

Another small infectious anecdote?

When the COVID-19 lockdown had been underway for a month or so, there was a noticeable rise in this province in social media postings from parents who noted that, caught up in their own small family units, their children were suddenly, if not germ-free, at least not as germ-ridden as they had been in school or daycare. No pinkeye, for example, and a break for kids with long-running records of ear infections.

It’s a pod of whales and a gaggle of geese. What’s a group of school aged kids in a classroom called? A petri dish.

I recognize that there has to be a balance between a functioning education system, the needs of students to successfully continue their education, and the public health concerns of a new pandemic virus. The needs of working parents are obviously in that equation as well.

Clearly, as long as we all take every measure we can to stay reasonably COVID-free, everything in schools will be fine. (There is a whole stream of discussion that claims kids don’t suffer from COVID-19 like older adults do — though some obviously have suffered serious effects and have even died. It is, however, clear they can spread the virus — and if what we’re trying to achieve is a sort of infection stalemate while we wait for a vaccine, schools are definitely not the place you want COVID-19 running loose.)

Where there is COVID-19, especially community spread COVID-19, reopening schools (as in the United States) has already been shown to be a marvellously effective way to share the virus as widely and quickly as possible.

Right now, it looks like school is coming back. Supposedly, more detailed plans will be outlined by sometime next week.

I’m not saying there’s currently a danger. What I am saying is, if our infection rates change even marginally, counting on kids in the K-12 system to perfectly practice safe and consistent hygiene practices is a fine dream, but a practical nightmare.

And there had better be people at the top who are ready and willing to pull the plug on back-to-school plans at a moment’s notice.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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