As the community continues to discuss the best way to educate our kids in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, it is worth being clear about some of the things we don’t know in East Penn. Here are four things that I think are particularly important:
#1 We Don’t Know How Many Students and Staff Have COVID-19
Yes, the district provides a daily tally and Covid Dashboard of all known positive cases. But these numbers represent only those cases that parents and staff have voluntarily disclosed to the district. There is no way to know how many students and staff are choosing to keep positive test results private, or are choosing not to get tested in the first place.
#2 We Don’t Know How Many Students and Staff Carry the Virus Without Even Knowing It
Almost a year into the pandemic, Covid testing in the Lehigh Valley remains limited mostly to those with symptoms and their immediate contacts. Asymptomatic cases– which scientists now know are a major source of spread— are thus not being identified in our community. And the CDC estimates that as many as half of all children with Covid never show symptoms. Because of how limited testing is in our community, there are many people in our schools who have the virus, can infect others, but have no symptoms and no way of knowing they are carriers.
#3 We Don’t Know If the Virus is Being Spread in Our Schools
The only way to know if the virus is being spread through the schools is by doing contact tracing of the positive cases. The problem is that the state contact tracing system has broken down. I’ve spoken to multiple people in East Penn with Covid whose cases have never been traced even weeks after their positive test. An overwhelmed and understaffed PA Department of Health completed less than 25% of the needed contact tracing in the week before Thanksgiving, and the number of cases in the Lehigh Valley is already 85% higher than it was then. There is thus no way to know if we have spread in our schools.
#4 We Don’t Know If Our Safety Measures Will Be Effective Against the New COVID-19 Strain
As many people know, there is a new strain of COVID-19 that spreads more easily that the strain we’ve been dealing with thus far. It has already been identified in Pennsylvania. We don’t know if the existing safety measures we’ve put in place in the schools will provide the same level of safety from this new strain.
I ask that all of us consider those things we don’t know as we make judgments about how to safely navigate this pandemic. One of the infuriating realities of our situation locally is that we simply do not have the data needed to make many important judgments. The situation is unfair. It doesn’t have to be this way. And it is parents and kids who are bearing the brunt of the consequences. Yet this is the situation we face right now. Pretending we know more than we do, or ignoring those things we don’t know, won’t lead to better outcomes for our families, our schools, or our community.