Editorial: Reopen schools but safely

The Island Now

President Donald Trump has consistently been wrong on the coronavirus.

He has repeatedly downplayed the threat it posed, said the virus would disappear like a miracle and likened it to the flu.

He first said there would be no deaths. Then he said there would be 40,000 to 50,000 deaths. Then he said there would be 70,000 deaths. And then 100,000 deaths.  Each time he has said he and his administration were doing a great job.

Trump even suggested you could cure the coronavirus by ingesting or injecting disinfectants and shining a light into your body.

During this time more than 3.3 million Americans have been infected and 135,000 have died – far more than any other country in both categories.

And this week the United States set a record for new cases in a single day with more than 60,000. Florida alone, under the leadership of Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor, had more than 15,000 in a 24-hour period.

So please excuse us for not taking too seriously the president’s recent tweeted instruction that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” By which Trump said he meant with students in school five days a week in every district across the country.

Fortunately, the president has no actual power to decide when and how schools operate. That remains in the hands of governors and local school districts.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo provided local school districts with sensible guidelines Monday on when schools in New York could open in September – if the coronavirus infection level is 5 percent or lower in their region by the first week in August.

The region where a school is located must be in Phase 4, the last phase, of reopening. The 5 percent level must be a 14-day average.

The guidelines go on to say that schools will remain closed if the level rises to a seven-day average of 9 percent or greater before the day school opens.

If the levels hit 9 percent, “that means the virus is moving rapidly and it is not intelligent to reopen,” Cuomo said. “We hit an emergency stop button … It’s very simple, it’s clear.”

As of Sunday, the statewide infection level was 1.08 percent statewide and 1.5 percent on Long Island.

Cuomo also provided school districts with a stringent set of regulations calling for face masks when social distancing is not possible, regular disinfection of schools, screening of students and contact tracing for anyone who gets infected with COVID-19.

The regulations require six feet of separation between students and instruct schools to use gyms and other community spaces to expand available classroom space for in-person instruction.

“Every person entering a school will be “screened,” Cuomo said, though he did not specify if that meant temperature checks or asking people if they have symptoms associated with COVID-19.

This is known as following the science.

Some doctors have said schools should randomly test students and teachers, but that may be impossible because of the lack of funding and limited testing even in hospitals. Others have said schools will need to ensure that they can circulate fresh air, whether by filtering the air, pumping it in from the outside or simply opening windows.

Local school districts are required to use these guidelines to submit their own plans for reopening by July 31.

This will not be cheap and they need help. An average-size district of 3,700 students can expect $1.8 million in pandemic-related costs for 2020-21, according to an estimate from the School Superintendents Association.

But it is unclear where that money will come from.

Cuomo has said New York will need to cut state aid 20 percent to school districts and municipalities unless Congress approves a financial relief package for states reeling from the impact of the coronavirus – legislation currently blocked by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

When the virus first struck in the Northeast, McConnell called the plan a blue-state bailout. Perhaps that will change now that the virus has spread across so-called red states in the South and Southwest. Regardless, McConnell should be voted out of office in the fall.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said most of New York City’s 1.1 million students would attend classes in person, two or three days a week, to limit the spread of the coronavirus and do remote learning the other days.

Under the mayor’s plan, there will probably be no more than a dozen people in a classroom at a time, including teachers and aides.

This hybrid plan is one that has been used in Europe and appears to be gaining support. That is for school districts that are planning to reopen.

California’s two largest public school districts announced Monday that instruction would be online-only in the fall.

The decision came as Gov. Gavin Newsom announced sweeping rollbacks to California’s opening. The reason: a spike in the infection rate that is mirrored across the South and West.

Trump tweeted on July 7 that in “Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries “SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS.”

What he failed to note was that the United States reported 54,000 new cases that day compared to Sweden with 283 cases, Germany with 279, Norway with 11 and Denmark with just 10 – a total of 583. Fifty-four thousand vs. 583. A little bit of a difference, no?

The reality is that to open schools you have to control the community spread and then open schools carefully.

That was accomplished in New York with an early lockdown followed by a gradual reopening.

Cuomo said the schools’ reopening will be conducted the same way.

“It’s purely on the numbers,” he said.

There is a real cost to schools being closed part or all of the time.

Child development experts say keeping children, especially young ones, out of schools has worrisome implications for social and academic development. And that denying children a real school day deepened racial and economic inequalities.

Not opening schools five days a week also exacts a heavy economic toll on parents unable to work a normal schedule and has a ripple effect across the economy.

But consider the alternative.

Trump apparently thinks the enormous health risks associated with opening schools too soon are acceptable as he looks at the economic landscape during an election.

As New Yorkers who have seen the worst, we should know better. Yes, schools should reopen. But only the right way. By the numbers.

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