Professor urges caution in returning students to school

Guest Opinion
Dr. Delena Norris-Tull
Wednesday, August 5, 2020

As the school year approaches, and as the number of COVID-19 cases across the nation and in Montana grows precipitously, I have become more and more concerned about the impending opening of schools and colleges. I appeal to all of you to consider the scientific data before considering having children and young adults come together face-to-face, for schooling this academic year.

In countries that have managed the COVID-19 outbreak much more effectively than the USA, attempts to re-open schools have had mixed results. In some cases, the countries have had to reclose schools almost immediately. And these are countries that have much lower case counts than we do.

On April 10, Montana had only 377 cases statewide. But as of July 28, we had 3,475 cases. In three months the number of COVID-19 cases in Montana increased by more than 900 per cent. And the lengthy time it takes to find out if you have tested positive makes contact tracing almost useless. For several months, when test results were sent to the state lab, you could get the results back in two-three days. But one of my neighbors, who had been in contact with an individual with COVID-19, had to wait 15 days for test results. And today, I heard from the Montana Public Health Department that the wait-time is now at least 10 days because the testing labs are overwhelmed.

One bit of good news: The Montana death rate, or Case Fatality Rate (CFR), with 51 deaths, remains low. The Montana CFR is currently 1.4 per cent. The CFR for the entire USA is 3.5 per cent. The USA has fewer hospital beds and doctors per capita than a number of other developed nations that have struggled with ICU availability. Montana actually has a reasonable number of hospital beds (we rank eighth in the nation), but we have fewer physicians per capita than most other states.

I am a retired educator. I taught at the University of Montana Western for 14 years. I am both a scientist and a teacher educator. This is my urgent plea to all K-12 schools, colleges, and universities in Montana. Now is not the time to bring children and college students back to face-to-face classes. The danger remains high for their health, the health of their educators, and the health of their parents and grandparents.

According to the CDC and international data, young people are far less likely to become seriously ill than older adults. As of July 21, only 6.6 per cent of known COVID-19 cases in the USA are in children and adolescents. But that means that of 4.2 million individuals in the USA known to have COVID-19 today, 278,895 of them are children and adolescents.

The CDC reports that less than 0.1 per cent of children and adolescents in the USA have died from COVID-19. Based on data from other countries, it appears that children are less likely than adults to transmit the virus to other children. But in the USA little research has been conducted on virus transmission among children because we are not systematically testing asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals. Studies in various European nations, where widespread testing has been conducted, have found that from 20 to 80 per cent of individuals with COVID-19 are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Keep in mind that in the USA, few locations have been able to conduct testing on asymptomatic individuals that do not have known contacts to individuals with COVID-19. Thus the true extent of the virus remains a mystery. Montana recently attempted to begin asymptomatic testing across the state, but that was shut down almost immediately due to the inability of the testing labs to keep up with the demand.

Consider the amount of money that major league teams, such as football and baseball, have been spending in order to play games this summer and fall. Major League Baseball developed a 101-page manual of protocols for preventing COVID-19 outbreaks. These protocols are based on, and greatly exceed, CDC guidelines. MLB is testing all players and coaches for COVID-19 every other day. MLB has commissioned the Sports Medicine and Research Testing Lab in Salt Lake City to handle all their COVID-19 testing. In addition, all players will be tested for antibodies once a month. Prior to the start of spring training, dozens of players tested positive for covid-19, some of whom have recovered and returned to their teams. And 58 players and eight staff tested positive when they turned up for spring training. Since workouts began, an additional 27 players and seven staff have tested positive for COVID-19, and the number keeps growing.

Schools and colleges in Montana are severely underfunded, and do not have the financial resources to set up face-to-face classes that would begin to meet the CDC guidelines for reopening schools. And while it would seem ideal to be able to test every child and staff member for COVID-19 before they start school, that is not even remotely feasible in Montana. How do we have any chance of preventing significant outbreaks in schools and colleges across the state?

How many adults and children will fall ill or die this fall if our schools and universities bring students back face-to-face? Keep in mind that if one K-12 or college student becomes ill in a school, every student and staff member they have been in contact with, both in the school and at home, will have to go into quarantine for two weeks. On July 24, Florida reported that 31,000 children had tested positive for COVID-19, and 300 of them had been hospitalized. That rate of hospitalization may be less than one percent of the children that have the virus, but that’s 300 families praying for the lives of their children. This spring, healthcare providers in various locations worldwide started reporting cases of what is now called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, a disease linked to COVID-19 that has long-term health consequences for children and adolescents. While rare, cases have now been identified in children and adolescents in almost every state.

One thing that the last six months has proven is that our economy is highly dependent on our health care. It is an error to think that putting children and young adults back into schools and colleges will enable our economy to bounce back. On the contrary, it is likely to be the set-back that causes states across the nation to go through another lengthy, expensive shut-down.

Dr. Delena Norris-Tull, a retired professor of science education, is an honored Professor Emerita, University of Montana Western.