Mrs. Byrd died on June 26 after contracting the coronavirus.

Most people in Colorado wouldn’t know Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd because she was an Arizona elementary teacher. I didn’t know Mrs. Byrd, either, but her death both saddens and frightens me.

As a fellow teacher, I don’t want to end up like Mrs. Byrd. 

Despite taking precautions, Byrd, along with two colleagues, all caught COVID-19. The trio taught a virtual summer school class from the same classroom to kindergarten, first- and second-grade students. They made sure to wear masks and physically distance, and they disinfected shared equipment. It wasn’t enough.

Stacy Cohen

Now several area districts, including Denver and Jeffco, plan to reopen next month for 100% in-person learning. Although CDC guidelines suggest student desks should be spaced six feet apart, that will be an impossible feat in most, if not all, classrooms. Gov. Polis has pointed to social distancing as a key to keeping virus cases down in Colorado. Then why do so many officials think returning schools to normal is a good idea?

Research is still not conclusive about how vulnerable children are to catching or spreading COVID-19. It is only known that many appear asymptomatic, which means they are not even aware they are infected. Mathematica, a data and analytics company, conducted a research study for the Pennsylvania Department of Education in which modeling found that without proper safety precautions, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and hybrid schedules, the average school in the state with a “typical” number of infections would see five COVID-19 cases within five days of opening. If the state adopted a hybrid schedule, involving two days in school and three days learning remotely at home, social distancing could be maintained and the speed of virus spread would be greatly slowed.

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Of course, even if the majority of children have mild cases, that doesn’t mean the other adults in school or in students’ homes will be quite so lucky. Studies have been mixed on how likely students are to spread the virus, partly because fewer children have been tested since they often don’t exhibit symptoms. In other words, the jury is still out for now. 

People in favor of opening schools also point to other countries, saying if those countries can open their schools, so can we. But, the evidence is not that clear. When students in Denmark began returning to classes in April, there were only 200 new cases a day in the entire country. By June, that number had fallen to 14 new cases.

Similarly, Austria was averaging 50 cases a day when students returned in May. We’re a far cry from those numbers in the United States where we’ve been averaging more than 50,000 cases a day. Even Colorado topped 600 new daily cases in the past week.

And, while Denmark and Austria, as well as other countries, took baby steps to reopen, we’re plowing right ahead. They made sure students were socially distanced by bringing back small groups at a time to check for a spike in cases; we’re bringing back all students at once without social distancing, despite the fact that our daily cases per capita far exceed those countries.

We can take a lesson from Israel. More than 200 students and staff became infected when limits on class sizes were lifted in May, just two weeks after school reopened.

Most teachers I know hated remote learning and are eager to return to the classroom. We miss our students more than we ever imagined. But, we want the decisions about returning safely to be based on scientific evidence, not pressure from politicians, who are eager to jumpstart the economy. We want a slow start to make sure all students and staff are safe, and we want social distancing.

None of us wants to be another Mrs. Byrd. None of us wants to bury one of our students or colleagues. As one of my teacher friends recently texted me, “I fully believe that kids need to be in school … however, I’m also tired of being seen as expendable.”

Stacy Cohen, Ph.D., has been a middle and high school educator for 24 years.

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