There have been a lot of great questions and concerns about East Penn’s health and safety plan for district schools this fall. But the school district doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The viability of the health and safety plan will be determined more by the larger social and political context in the country than it will by any of the specific details of the plan itself. To evaluate whether the plan will work therefore requires we take a step back and look at this larger social and political context.
The situation we find ourselves in today was NOT inevitable. Different countries have responded to the pandemic in different ways, which has in turn largely determined the fate of education and the schools. This is an important enough point that it’s worth an example or two.
New Zealand is a country of 4.9 million people that took COVID-19 seriously from the start, closing schools, shuttering businesses, and requiring people to stay home on March 25th, at a time when they had fewer than 200 cases nationwide (and no deaths). They immediately expanded their testing and contact tracing capacity to the levels scientific and public health experts said was necessary. The result? The country completely eradicated the virus in less than two months. On June 8th– after 17 straight days of zero new cases– New Zealand lifted all pandemic restrictions. Only their border remains closed, to protect what they’ve accomplished. All told, they had 1,154 cases and 22 deaths from COVID-19.
By comparison, the U.S. state that comes closest in population to New Zealand is Alabama (also with 4.9 million people). COVID-19 appeared in Alabama for the first time about the same time as it did in New Zealand, and governor Kay Ivey ordered all non-essential businesses in the state closed on March 27th– just two days after a similar order in New Zealand. Unlike New Zealand, however, Alabama never enforced the order to close, and in any case most of the order was lifted less than a month later. Rather than telling people to stay at home, the state instead created a “Safer At Home” campaign that “encouraged” doing so. Alabama also did not ramp up its testing or contact tracing capacity to the levels needed to combat the spread of the virus. The result? Alabama has recorded 68,891 cases through July 20th, with 1,291 deaths. The state has recorded more new cases every single day since July 10th than the entire total of New Zealand’s cases over more than four months. I’ll ask the obvious at this point: Which of these results do you think is more conducive to returning to school?
This isn’t an isolated example. In Europe, Slovakia has more people than Alabama– at 5.4 million– in an area less than a third the size of the state, and was well connected to initial pandemic hotspots in places like Italy and Spain. Yet to date they have had only 1,980 cases and 28 deaths due to COVID-19. How did they do it? Slovakia used the best public health expertise to confront the virus; they acted decisively in shutting down schools and non-essential businesses when the virus first appeared; and they led the world in requiring universal use of masks in public places.
The lesson here is clear. The spread of COVID-19 presented a challenge, not an unstoppable catastrophe, to leaders around the world. Those that chose to confront the virus with aggressive action and the best available scientific and public health advice met the challenge. Those that downplayed the threat, ignored best practices, and delayed tough choices for containing the virus now face greater danger, economic losses, and social disruption.
The Choice Today
All of this is now history. The choice today is whether we will learn from the successes and failures of the (recent) past and change course? Or will we continue ignoring both evidence and expertise, choosing short term convenience over long term recovery until COVID-19 has consumed us entirely?
It is on this crucial choice that the future of our schools depends in the coming months. Here in Lehigh County, the number of new COVID-19 cases has stayed low for almost two months now. This offers us a real opportunity to give the education of our kids the attention, resources, and support it deserves. But this can happen only if the social and political context allows us to keep these numbers low– something that the district’s health and safety plan simply cannot guarantee. The fact is that the four basic ingredients needed to safely reopen schools have been known for months now:
- We need to be testing many more people for the virus. There are minor disagreements about the exact standard to properly judge the number of needed tests, but current testing levels in Pennsylvania don’t meet any of these standards.
- We need to have labs returning test results quickly enough that those who test positive can isolate themselves and minimize the spread of the virus.
- We need to have robust contact tracing that can quickly and reliably identify those who might have contracted the virus from others.
- We need social distancing measures that are widely practiced and enforced. The most proven of these measures is the use of masks, but also include physical distancing and a continued suspension of “super spreader” events that gather crowds in the hundreds and thousands.
Can East Penn Safely Reopen?
The answer lies not in the details of East Penn’s health and safety plan, but in the willingness of the community to do what is required to stop the spread of COVID-19. And it lies in the hands of the choices America’s state and national leaders make in the weeks and months ahead.
Here in East Penn, I have the utmost confidence in the leadership of superintendent Kristen Campbell as well as the dedication and wisdom of every one of my colleagues on the East Penn School Board. I am sure that our district’s teachers will step up to the unprecedented challenge we now face. And our children are more resilient and adaptable than we give them credit for.
I don’t know if all this will be enough. We have been watching the tragedy of America’s response to the pandemic for months now. This is what failure looks like. But it doesn’t have to continue this way. We can change course and fix this. There is nothing inevitable or unstoppable about COVID-19. But reopening East Penn schools will require more than a well formulated health and safety plan; it will also require a change in will, competence, courage, and perseverance at the national level.
This is the second part of a weeklong series of posts on reopening the East Penn schools. Here are the others:
- The Least Bad Option?
- A Case for Reopening Our Schools
- A Case for Keeping Schools Closed
- Pandemic Education
Throughout this series, I encourage your questions, your concerns, and your perspective. Please share them in the comment area available at the bottom of every one of my posts.