2020/03/12

COVID-19: Evaluating School Closures

I'm getting increasingly concerned that many Santa Clara County public schools are continuing normal operations when -- based on available evidence -- they should be suspending in-person classes.

The communication from my local school districts, MVWSD and MVLA, is roughly the same:
In the event of potential school closure: The Public Health Department currently is not recommending closing schools. If a staff member or student in a specific school is confirmed to have COVID-19, the Public Health Department will consider, based on the specific facts and circumstances of that case, whether closure of that school is warranted.
The problem with this:

  • We already know there is community transmission in the local area;
  • Patients presenting symptoms of COVID-19 are unable to get tested without meeting additional criteria (known contacts, foreign travel, etc.);
  • Therefore, absence of people "confirmed to have COVID-19" isn't evidence of much of anything, and not something to base critical safety decisions on. 
I've checked with a local ER physician who, as of Monday night, had 2 patients presenting symptoms, but who could not get the patients tested and did not know when they would be tested.   That's consistent with local and national reporting on the availability of testing, which is still very limited.  There's simply a capacity issue -- we cannot test everyone physicians want to screen, yet.

Also, the school sizes greatly exceed the (new) 250 person cap on large gatherings from Governor Newsom's latest orders.  While those orders explicitly carve out schools to be treated differently from other large gatherings -- I'm having a pretty hard time seeing how we can say that, say, a conference of 300 people should be cancelled, but a school of over 2,000 kids should remain open, based purely on public health criteria.

So, the official guidelines for shutting down public schools seems to still be catching up to the facts on the ground.  We have 48 confirmed cases in Santa Clara County, many in the local area, so clearly there is community transmission happening here.  We do not have the ability to screen people to see if we should trigger the current shutdown criteria.  So, I'm calling to ignore those criteria based on that evidence and to suspend in-person classes in the local schools with community transmission in the area.

Other local educational organizations appear to agree with this.  Local colleges and universities have suspended in-person classes. At least one local private high school has announced suspension of in-person classes until Mar 10. I  do not believe any of these are of these are based on the Health Department guidelines or specific cases -- they're evaluating the overall situation and risk.

I'd love to be wrong, but for today & tomorrow, out of an abundance of caution, I'm keeping my kids home from school.

(There's also a petition going around to suspend classes at MVHS: https://www.change.org/p/mvla-school-district-halt-in-person-classes-at-mvhs.)

Update:  The reasoning provided by the Santa Clara County Health Department in a Nextdoor post is:

The reason we are not recommending school closures at this time is because children have not been shown to be a high-risk group for serious illness from this virus. Some children have underlying health conditions, such as weakened immune systems, that put them at higher risk. Caregivers of children with underlying health conditions should consult with healthcare providers about whether their children should stay home from school.
Many students also rely on schools and staff for basic needs, including regular meals, health care, and child care. If schools shut down, vulnerable families are at a higher risk of being negatively impacted. 
Another factor to consider is that closing schools may unintentionally impact our health care community and our collective response to COVID-19. There may be parents of students who are working as health care providers or in the health field on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. If schools close, parents may not be able to work and provide support to those who need it.

I agree the children without underlying health conditions aren't at high risk; that's not my major concern here -- it's amplifying the community transmission of the virus in a major way by failing to shut down our biggest group event, public schools.  The concerns about vulnerable families being at risk due to lack of meals, health care, and child are are definitely valid issues, but ones the school needs to have made contingency plans for weeks back.  We do not need to continue in-person classes to maintain those services.

Update: After I wrote the above, I checked the Mercury News and saw this op-ed from a team of doctors.  It reaches the conclusion that school closures are inevitable and suggests some good options for mitigating the impact: https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/03/12/opinion-doctors-call-for-school-closures-done-right/

Update 5pm 3/12: The elementary school district just sent this out:

* In the event of potential school closure, our Food and Nutrition Services Department will utilize the district's food truck to serve meals to children under the age of 18 near Castro Elementary/Gabriela Mistral Elementary campus, as part of the Seamless Summer program
* We are in the process of creating grade-level packets with student work for use through spring break. The District will provide information to families on how they can access packets beginning Wednesday, March 18. These packets are designed to reinforce concepts already taught. Additionally, parents and students can log onto Clever.com for online learning resources like i-Ready, Khan Academy, Zearn, etc. This is not a replacement for classroom instruction.
Absences: The Santa Clara County Office of Education and County of Santa Clara Department of Health continue the guidance that students who are well continue to attend school. We understand that families can still make a choice to keep their children at home during this time, and we want to honor that choice. For the next few weeks, we will not be taking any truancy action or dis-enrolling students accruing unexcused absences. 
The decision-making process for potential school closure is that we continue to assess the situation on an almost-daily basis with the County of Santa Clara Department of Health and Santa Clara County Office of Education. The possibility of school closure is more imminent as districts and organizations around the area close in an attempt to curtail the potential spread of the virus. It is wise that families now prepare plans for child care. We will continue to update you and will provide any details as soon as we have them. 

Links:
https://www.fast.ai/2020/03/09/coronavirus/
https://www.wired.com/story/singapore-was-ready-for-covid-19-other-countries-take-note/

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