Letter: Safest Place for Children Is in School

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Dear Editor,

Despite multiple attempts to discuss the accurate evaluation of the risks the pandemic and our response to it present to our children and community with our Superintendent Dr. Bryan Luizzi, I have received no response to my emails or phone calls.  So, with a heavy heart, I feel compelled to share the facts with our community through your publication.

In “Charting Our Course” Dr. Luizzi begins by stating ”In all that we do and every decision we make, the health and wellness of our school community will always be our true north and unwavering guide.” (page 1). I couldn’t agree more, so let’s identify the real risks the pandemic presents to our school community’s health and wellness.

The risks of catching COVID-19 in a school following the CDC and WHO guidelines regarding ventilation and sanitary practices like mask wearing is exceptionally low. This was highlighted in an excellent article recently published by El Pais. As a former HVAC engineer and a PhD physicist who has modeled the spread of COVID I have calculated the risk to our students using the research by Professor José Luis Jiménez that underlies this article. Assuming the worst case, a teacher has COVID and does not know it, there is only a 0.8% chance that they infect a student in a given day. If we assume that the community spread is 100 per 100,000 (four times our current level) there is about a 0.05% chance that anyone catches COVID at school in a day. Using the current fatality rate this means that the chance of dying from COVID caught at school is about the same as dying from a car accident.

Now let’s talk about the risks of not conducting in person learning. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatricians) strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. They shared in their statement “COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry” that “The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality.” Clearly the risks of models other than in-person learning are quite high.

It is hard for me to see how the decision to move to a hybrid model is best for the health and wellness of our school community. Quite the contrary: we are clearly exchanging the minuscule risk of spreading COVID in school with a large risk of isolation hindering our school community’s well being, not to mention a reduction in the quality of their learning.

So how do we reconcile these facts with the fact that COVID is spreading in our community? Applying Prof. Jiménez research to another setting, say a party with 10 people who are speaking loudly for three hours in a poorly ventilated space, we find that the chance of catching COVID is more than 90%, over 100 times that of catching it in school. Further, a recent paper in the journal Nature by Chang et. al. “Mobility network models of COVID-19 explain inequities and inform reopening” show that in-person dining is responsible for nearly 10x the spread of COVID as the next most dangerous setting. The risks of spreading COVID are much higher in social settings outside of school.

In summary: closing our schools will not slow the spread of COVID meaningfully, but it will negatively impact our students’ well-being and education. We should first try changing our personal gathering practices if we want to stop the spread of COVID. Let our kids learn: please keep them in person.

Yours,

Dr. Philip C. Farese

13 thoughts on “Letter: Safest Place for Children Is in School

  1. Thank you for writing this – in addition to the many issues you highlight the economic impacts to students and families are significant and long-term – here is a good study reflecting trying to address this https://voxeu.org/article/long-term-effects-school-closures?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter. I encourage you to keep reaching out to the Superintendent, Chair of the School Board, State reps and the Governor who has significant emergency powers. In the end this is a societal choice we are making with regards to priorities of areas of closure and how we respond to the crisis.

  2. I see unmasked high school kids cruising around town, carpooling, like, it’s the summer of love. As for your El Pais article, Dr Farese—Spain is not a good model for COVID19 infection numbers!
    It seems like you just want what you want and you want it now, despite the lack of vigilance with masking up, seen all over town, & the continued engagement in high contact activities on behalf of the high school aged cohort. To be fair, the community priority should be to protect and serve the most vulnerable— the youngest of children, the elderly, our teachers, and our first responders.

    • Thanks for your response. I agree with you that irresponsible behavior outside of the school setting is a problem. I am merely sharing the observed fact that in a properly configured and regulated school setting the risk is very low. Outside of that setting students should mask up! In fact, keeping them in school will keep them would diminish the “summer of love” problem.

    • Betsy,
      Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you that unmasked students enjoying this summer of love is a problem. We all need to follow CDC guidelines when around others. My observations pertain to children in the well controlled and supervised setting of school. With proper ventilation and enforced masked wearing there it is a very safe place for all, including those most at risk. In fact, if kids are in school they are less able to be out and about in town!

      Yours,
      Phil

  3. Philip, I’m not sure you’ll find a school district anywhere in the country that is more committed than New Canaan is to in-person learning, nor one that has a better track record of keeping kids in school.

    Teachers and staff have had to work their tails off–and in many ways reinvent learning–to keep the doors open. I encourage anyone writing about the schools to acknowledge that.

    • Hi Tom – based on the CT State DOE I believe New Canaan has done the best job in the State – and massive compliments to absolutely everybody involved (including town residents and parents who supported this reopening) http://edsight.ct.gov/relatedreports/Supporting%20Student%20Participation%20in%202020-21.html. It is also clear from that material that full in-person participation in the State hit a plateau starting in mid-October. Pieces like this from Philip are important as they focus on the data and the science we need to understand as we address the resurgence of cases in the State. Many of the very critical decisions on schools being open are actually taken by elected officials (like you) – so getting this information out and discussed is very important. Betsy brings up good points on behavior, which in my view is another good reason why schools should stay open, as most of the data both here and around the world appears to indicate that other locations and activities are what we should focus on first, rather than closing the classrooms to reduce the spread.

      • Giacomo, agree that the BOE, town residents, and public officials have done an excellent job re: COVID. Any idea if that map is mainly showing the percentage of parents opting-out of in-person learning versus schools shutting down in-person classes?

        Parents highly value in-person education in our town. I believe we have the highest parental educational attainment in the State (% of parents going to graduate school). That’s going to reflect itself in a number of statistics, including student achievement overall and a low % of opt-outs I would imagine.

        • Hi James – you can download the raw data (link is just above the map). If you do that and rank order districts by size and all grades open you will come to New Canaan and Darien as both open fully with large portions of students in class (Waterbury with more students appears fully open for example but 68% of the students appear to be fully remote). New Canaan has 5% of its students fully remote (i.e. opt out) where as Darien has 9% – this is why in my view New Canaan comes out on top. It is an interesting exercise for everybody to do to see the variation in the CT in terms of how school districts responded, and thinking about public policy and the role of public education and what school closures will do long term to those impacted. As Philip rightly points out each State has responded differently and some States are fully open for in person learning and have been for some time.

    • Tom,
      I do agree that our teachers and staff are doing an excellent job. The challenges and extra work of hybrid learning are especially taxing. I am very grateful for all they do.
      I must differ regarding what the administrative decision to move to hybrid says about the commitment to in person learning. Please review the information at Where Has COVID-19 Closed Schools? Where Are They Open? (2020, July 28). Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-covid-19-schools-open-closed.html
      Texas, for example, “requires school districts to provide daily, on-campus learning for any family who wants it.” That is committed. Further note the editorial in the NY Times yesterday highlighting that Europe is closing bars but keeping schools open while America is doing the opposite

    • Hi Tom,
      I do agree that our teachers are doing a phenomenal job in this difficult time. I applaud their endurance and extra effort, and their willingness to be pursuing their chosen profession: we all should recognize their phenomenal efforts! I expect that hybrid learning is particularly demanding on their time and patience: I know it is particularly hard for my children.

      However I must disagree that New Canaan is committed to in-person learning. I would refer you to Education Week, https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-covid-19-schools-open-closed.html. For example, Texas “requires school districts to provide daily, on-campus learning for any family who wants it”. New Canaan does not: clearly Texas has districts more committed to in-person learning than New Canaan.

      My concern is not with our teachers and staff, but with the factually unsupported decision our administrators are making that fail to prioritize the well-being of our school community.
      Humbly yours,
      Phil

  4. We need a risk based strategy and not a one size fits all methodology. KIds are the least at risk group. Kids with risk factors have already opted out of in-person learning. I think learning from home is not the right approach for this low risk group. And yes, I have an 8th and 11th grader.

  5. A few quick points. First, while clearly there are downsides to moving to hybrid for the High School, they aren’t as dramatic as some would suggest. These students have excellent technological tools and savvy, most are mature enough to work independently (much more so than younger kids), and they participate in real time in the same classrooms and with the same teachers and peers as they do on in-person days.

    Reasonable people can differ about the advantages of moving high school to hybrid, but the decision is not without basis. Reducing school density in situations of high community spread is the position of the State Department of Health. The High school curriculum makes cohort separation difficult, so that a single positive case could shut down a large proportion (or all) of the High School. The school administration has data we lack about out-of-school behaviors of our teens. And finally, it’s absolutely critical that we protect teachers and keep them teaching.

    It’s fair enough that data can drive some to different conclusions, but my money is on school leaders who have invested thousands of hours applying the relevant pandemic statistics and theories to real life situations. They’ve done fabulously well so far, so let’s continue to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    • Hi Tom – if you have not read the referenced articles in this op-ed I suggest you do as they are very good (if you need links drop me an email and I will send to you). The short version is by the data schools are a safer place (social distancing and mask wearing are enforced as examples – and other issues as well) than many other places for kids. As Kevin’s outcall said tonight we clearly have the virus here in town. The question is how do we respond as a community? Do we close schools / go hybrid with all the side effects (4,000+ students will now be less occupied / more play dates will take place etc.) or we do other things? We are all connected on this so we need to do what is best for the community overall. I personally think the best for everybody is keeping schools open (due to all the other side effects I mention) but I do understand the challenges and risks. We should not be under an illusion that closing schools will somehow stop the virus without doing other things as well where the data appears to indicate it spreads more readily.

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