Letter from an American teacher: “In a pandemic, no one is safe unless we are all safe.”

29 May 2020

The WSWS Teacher Newsletter has received this letter from a high school AP Biology teacher in the Bay Area, California for publication, opposing the reopening of schools with in-person learning. Originally sent to the superintendents and board members of his and his child’s schools, the letter provides an annotated argument that points to the crying need for a massive increase in school funding to address the crisis.

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Dear Superintendent and Board Members,

I am a father of a middle school student and a teacher of Biology and AP Biology. Before I was a teacher, I was a scientist at the University of California San Francisco, in the Infectious Diseases Department. For more than a decade I have been teaching my students about Pandemic Preparedness as part of my unit on Human Body Systems and the Immune System. As a result of this curriculum, several of my students expressed to me that they felt less scared and anxious during the Shelter-in-Place (SIP) because they had a better scientific understanding of what was happening and how we could protect ourselves.

Please read carefully each of the arguments I lay out below. Any one of them, alone, should be sufficient justification to keep the schools physically closed and continue Distance Learning (DL) for the 2020-2021 school year. Contrary to the all the hype and propaganda we are hearing about “safety” and returning to normal, there is no truly safe way to return to school or work while a pandemic is happening.

1. The most significant reason to continue DL is to help prevent this tragedy from becoming much worse. The pandemic is not going to end any time soon. The only way to slow it down or contain it is with continued SIP/DL, combined with universal weekly testing, PLUS contact tracing and quarantining. Anything short of this, we will see surges, like in New York, Italy and Spain, where people died because there weren’t enough ICU beds, ventilators or even sufficient doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, we are not seeing these requirements met anywhere in the U.S., including the Bay Area, and we are unlikely to by August.

2. One of the most effective ways to slow down a pandemic is by shutting schools.

3. It is NOT true that kids don’t get this disease.

4. Clearly, in-person learning is better than DL. Children benefit from the social interactions with their peers and the one-on-one personal attention from their teachers. However, the way in-person learning will have to be implemented during the pandemic will undermine many of those benefits. Consider that the main route of transmission is droplets and aerosols that fly out of people’s mouths and noses when coughing, sneezing, talking, singing and breathing heavily. All of these activities increase the volume, velocity and distance infectious materials travel in the environment.

5. Not all social interactions that happen at school are necessarily healthy and positive.

6. There are numerous intractable logistical problems with Blended-Learning models where students attend class 2 days a week, with social distancing, and then continue doing DL at home the remaining 3 days a week

7. Most back-to-work models include some form of screening at the beginning of the work day. While this was quite effective for SARS, where infectiousness coincided with the onset of symptoms, like fevers, it is virtually useless with Covid-19, where 44% of infections are caused by people who are asymptomatic. It also could give a false sense of security that could lead many people to engage in riskier behaviors and not respect the social distancing and hygiene rules. Also, the CDC recommends creating an isolation room for any suspected cases and a Covid-19 point person at each site who follows and reports on community trends to staff and the authorities. Where will the funding and humans come from for this, particularly if districts are cutting staff and struggling with budget shortfalls?

8. According to Ed Week, one-third of all teachers are at elevated risk for severe covid-19 complications or death due to age and/or underlying health conditions.

9. The pandemic and the SIP are stressful to everyone, students, teachers, and their families. Right now, everyone needs more free time, not less, in order to manage the increased challenges, stress and time demands of the pandemic, like waiting in long lines to shop, sanitizing homes, spending extra time with children and family members to help calm and soothe them.

10. One final note: Continuing with DL for the entire 2020-2021 school year could save districts a lot of revenue when they are already facing severe budget shortfalls. By keeping schools closed, there would be much lower energy bills; less maintenance costs; and quite likely fewer teachers and staff on the payroll.

In a pandemic, no one is safe unless we are all safe.

In Health and Solidarity,

Michael Dunn