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Littwin: As schools prepare to reopen, anyone who isn’t nervous isn’t paying attention

In Denver, five-day, in-school plans were first being made when it looked as if the coronavirus were in hand. Now Gov. Polis is telling us cases are resurgent in Colorado, which is why systems have also built in alternatives.

As cities across Colorado are announcing plans for the coming school year, the one question you rarely hear, even in jest, is this: What could go wrong?

Because the answer is clear. So much could go wrong. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic is, to borrow the governor’s favorite metaphor, a whole new ballgame.

In fact, just before I sat down to write this, Jared Polis was holding a news conference to warn that Colorado is beginning to lose ground in its engagement with COVID-19. He said Coloradans had to be more responsible — on wearing masks, on social distancing, on avoiding parties, on understanding the seriousness of the situation — or we would risk losing much of what we had gained. In maybe the most un-gov-like thing I’ve heard in a while, Polis said that while he opposes underage drinking, if older teens feel the need to drink, to please do it in small groups. That’s where we are.

Mike Littwin

Meanwhile, even as the Trump administration was insisting that the CDC guidelines for reopening schools were “too tough” and needed to be changed, a federal document already in circulation — and obtained by The New York Times — was warning  that fully opening schools presented the “highest risk” of coronavirus spread.

Yeah, that’s really where we are.

Up to this point, Colorado has been an outlier among early-opening states. Keeping with the baseball metaphor, Polis says Colorado is one run behind the COVID-19 pandemic while states like Arizona and Texas are 10 runs down, which is a lot even if you’re playing at Coors Field. Polis credits the state’s good numbers to the fact that so many Coloradans had bought into the process. But now the numbers — on new cases, on hospitalizations and presumably soon on deaths — are inching up, even as they skyrocket in other parts of the country.

So, we’re in a critical stage. This is how bad it is. According to Polis, as many as 50,000 to 100,000 Texans and Arizonans visited Colorado over the July Fourth holiday. As I don’t have to tell you, Arizona and Texas, along with Florida and California, account for half the nearly 60,000 daily reported cases in America. Thirty-three states have seen cases rise by more than 10% in the past week. Worse still, 28% of those taking the test in Arizona are testing positive, 26% in Texas. 

And according to the COVID tracking project, Colorado is one of 34 states in which the amount of testing for the virus is well below suggested levels. So, yeah, wear the damn mask. 

And reopen schools?

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As any parent of school-age kids will tell you, or as any school teacher for that matter, this is not like reopening restaurants or bars or hair salons or shoe stores. This is about our kids — I’ve got a 5-year-old grandson in Texas who is scheduled to begin kindergarten next month — and when it’s your kid, the concept of “acceptable level of risk” usually involves nothing more worrisome than scraped knees or a loosened tooth. My wife taught kindergarten and first grade for 25 years. Five- and 6-year-olds don’t know how not to hug their teachers. When a first-grader falls down and scrapes his knee or worse, is the treacher not going to comfort the child? And the kids Polis is worrying about partying too much in the summer, are they going to suddenly socially distance when in school?

The good news is that data shows that the risk of infection, particularly for young kids, is quite low. On the risk of transmission of the virus from kids to teachers, to staff, to parents, to grandparents, the data is not quite as clear, although it seems to be low. 

Meanwhile, nearly everyone accepts the benefits — and the necessity — of kids going to school. The American Academy of Pediatrics says the risk for children in missing school is greater than the risk of going to school, although as one pediatrician involved in the study put it: “We have two not-great options.”

Besides an educational question, besides a health-and-safety question, besides those parents struggling to work and simultaneously care for the kids, there is also the matter of inequality. When we do distance learning, not all kids have at-home computer access. Many low-income kids — whose families have been hardest hit by the virus — depend on school to help with food and social services. The number of reported child abuse cases has gone down in Denver, which is almost certainly related to kids not being in school, where someone can notice and get help.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, who has failed spectacularly in keeping the virus in check, is now making a toothless threat to cut off federal funds to school systems that don’t fully reopen. Because he has to politicize everything, he is saying that any hesitation by administrators amounts to a Democratic plot to help defeat him in November. I don’t know who’s buying Trump’s version of events or who hasn’t noticed that we trail nearly all rich countries in our handling of the crisis, but Trump’s insistence on making school reopening about him will only make matters worse. 

When Trump tweeted the other day that Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden had reopened their schools successfully, he should have left out Sweden, which kept its economy open and has seen far worse results than most EU countries. Germany, Finland and Norway have the virus well in hand at this point, which is why they believed they could safely reopen. Put simply, here in America, we do not.

Dr. Tony Fauci said Thursday that due to the COVID-19 resurgence, some areas of the country may have to shut down again, which would, of course, be a political land mine. As to schools reopening, Fauci tells the Washington Post: “It’s not going to be easy because we’ve never done it before. This is uncharted waters — always remembering the primary issue is the safety and welfare of the children as well as the teachers who are going to be interacting with the children.”

It’s no wonder that the Colorado Education Association is demanding that teachers have a greater role in planning for the school year.

When I spoke to Mark Ferrandino, once the speaker of the Colorado House and now deputy superintendent for operations for Denver Public Schools, he laid out Denver’s comprehensive plan to reopen schools five days a week. But in that plan, the schools can’t guarantee six feet of social distancing at all times. They understand that 6-year-olds may be disinclined, like some of their parents, to wear masks full time. 

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“We can’t eliminate risk,” Ferrandino says. “We hope to mitigate the risk. Teachers know they will have situations where they need to use their common sense. The hope is, particularly with older kids, that social pressure, which can admittedly have negative outcomes, will have positive outcomes in this case.”

Denver is working on three levels of returning to school. One, the five-day model. Classrooms being retrofitted, kids staying with their cohorts while teachers move from class to class, masks and shields available, circulation systems updated, all amidst the hope that more money will be coming from Congress to help pay for the changes. 

Two, a hybrid model. New York City just announced it would have students come in on to three days a week and learn from home on the others. Denver has a similar plan if needed, but definitely prefers five days.

Three, the distance learning model, in which, Ferrandino says, the curricula has been much improved since the end of last school year.

Ferrandino went on to say, “We know that when flu season comes, it will present a challenge … We know there could be a second wave of COVID, which might have us back to remote teaching. I tell people that I wouldn’t be surprised if at different points in the school year we need to use all three scenarios, all based on what the medical science is telling us at the time.”

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He added, “The world is a changing place. We have to be adaptable. If conditions change, we will change.”

As Ferrandino and I talked, it seemed to me that Denver has a pretty comprehensive plan, all things considered. But if you’re not worried — I know I am — you haven’t been paying attention. And I think most parents — including those desperate for schools to reopen — are paying strict attention. 

Reopening is an experiment. As Fauci says, we can’t know what will happen. And what we do know is that these are our kids.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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