Respect science on COVID-19 — masks are essential; remote learning is not

If ever there was a time when we needed to respect science, it is now.

Minimizing the destruction of COVID-19 can be done at local and even personal levels. But it requires people to accept a few basic facts, which is proving astonishingly difficult for far too many Americans.

Let’s start with the most obvious — masks. To see why masks work take a squirt bottle of water and spray it into the air. The droplets shoot forward and disperse, much the way saliva droplets do from a mouth.

Next, hold a mask in front of the bottle and spray again. The result is far fewer airborne droplets. COVID is spread by infected airborne droplets. Limit the droplets, limit the transmission. It’s that simple. And yet many people cannot seem to understand this.

Perhaps they don’t believe the virus is real or, if it is, it’s not that dangerous. A friend of mine who’s a hospital nurse told me last summer that anyone who misunderstands the seriousness of COVID should spend a day with him at work.

During World War II, Americans sacrificed greatly to defeat a common enemy. Food, gasoline and rubber were rationed. Citizens donated all they could to scrap and rubber drives. Victory gardens ensured enough food was available for the military. Women gave up nylon stockings and donated silk ones to be repurposed into things such as parachutes.

In comparison, wearing a mask is but a minor inconvenience in fighting our current common enemy. Yet in today’s crisis, too many people aren’t doing their part.

Another friend runs a preschool near Columbus. She told me that mask wearing to prevent the transmission of COVID this fall has had an additional benefit: far fewer cases of typical colds and flus.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Which brings me to another act of science defiance: zero in-person instruction at Akron Public Schools. Science tests our assumptions to see if they hold up. While it may seem intuitive that 100% remote learning is the only safe way to educate our children this year, it’s not.

Last spring, schools nationwide understandably closed when this new virus invaded our nation. But we have since learned much. First of all, masks work. Secondly, we now understand the risk levels of different situations.

There is now a huge body of evidence indicating that schools aren’t super-spreader locations and younger children in particular, for whom remote-only learning is most detrimental, are far less likely than middle and high schoolers to bring COVID into the buildings from home.

While APS has remained remote-only, schools locally, nationally and internationally opened their buildings this fall, some with five-day full instruction, others in hybrid form. By following standard protocols and creating classroom bubbles, the risk of transmission turns out to be far lower than that of contact sports, indoor dining at restaurants or in gyms–all of which have been prioritized over education.

Locally, Copley and Norton’s school districts switched from remote- or hybrid-only after the first weeks of school, when it became evident that schools aren’t super spreader locations, to optional 5-day-a-week instruction. Neither have resulted in COVID catastrophes.

Meanwhile, the negative effects of not having in-person instruction are also well documented. Drop-out rates increase dramatically, which in turn leads to loss of income potential and even earlier death rates. For districts that have recalcitrantly remained remote only, they may well be responsible for a lost generation of students.

Last year our daughter Lyra, who has Down syndrome, repeated kindergarten. After testing in January, it was determined that she was finally first-grade ready. Then, in March, schools closed and Lyra regressed. We’ve worked all fall to get her caught up.

Her father and I pay a special education teacher to assist Lyra with her remote learning, something few families can afford. And while this has been helpful, it cannot replicate in-person instruction and Lyra remains where she was academically a year ago. Furthermore, she cannot derive the important benefits of speech, physical and occupational therapies through virtual instruction.

That’s why we were relieved when APS announced in late October that they would supplement remote-only learning with what they called “remote plus,” or in-person support. But the then district reversed course, as they have so often, cancelling the program before it began.

When they did, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda stated that large districts such as Akron’s cannot safely bring all 20,000 students back into the buildings, that they can’t bring even half that into the buildings.

That formula is overly simplistic. First of all, remote plus would likely not have brought half the student population into the buildings. But even if it did, that doesn’t mean they all had to be there at the same time.

For those who think now is not the time to consider alternatives to remote-only education, that is exactly what New York City schools, the largest district in the nation, did last week. Preschool and elementary students now have the option of returning to the buildings, even while the city faces increased COVID cases.

Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, often decries the lack of nuance in important considerations. All-or-nothing approaches all too often reign the day. This, coupled with people who are motivated by hubris or fear informed by unreliable sources, is not a recipe for getting out of this pandemic swiftly or with minimal losses.

Wear a mask. And let’s give our most vulnerable children the option of some form of in-person instruction.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 13, 2020.


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