Schools can reopen when adults follow the rules

Disregard of COVID-19 guidelines delays in-person classes

July 29, 2020 6:01 am

A cyclist performs tricks outside East High School in Denver on July 28, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

If a gin and tonic is your pastime of choice, your local bar is open until 10 p.m. But if education is your right, be ready to stay at home a little longer.

There had been much to celebrate in Colorado’s early response to COVID-19. We were among the first states to successfully “flatten the curve.” We did not overrun our ICUs. At one point, we were even poised to help neighboring states with their patient overflow.

But in recent weeks, a growing surge of Coloradans has refused to cooperate with the governor’s guidelines. In Weld County, locals held an estimated 2,000 person rodeo event with no enforced masks or physical distancing. In El Paso County, the sheriff’s office immediately refused to uphold the mask mandate. In response to a new bar curfew, the Colorado Tavern League is now suing the governor, and the Jefferson County Bandimere Speedway had to be forced by a judge to comply with public health rules. The result? Coloradans are staying home less, we’re reaching near “R2″ — a value reflecting cases are rising quickly — and we’re on track to reach ICU capacity as early as September. Defying guidelines is literally killing us.

Sadly, this uptick in cases comes as the school year draws near, prompting widespread confusion as to if and how schools can reopen. In conflicting messages, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Colorado strongly encourage the reopening of schools, yet many epidemiologists, scientists, public health experts and teachers remain skeptical as infections unexpectedly continue to rise. All are correct.

We should absolutely reopen schools as soon as possible. The research is abundantly clear that kids fare better when in the classroom — academically, physically and emotionally. During COVID-19, research is already finding impacts on anticipated loss of student achievement and risks of food scarcity and obesity due to school closures, to say nothing of the added stress on parents. Yet in the midst of a global pandemic, one in which America has lacked leadership, returning to school is complicated by rising infection rates. Had we done our part and cases remained low, reopening with precautions would have been possible. But we didn’t.

A glaring example of our future is Florida. Childhood COVID-19 cases have surged 34% in eight days, and childhood hospitalizations a staggering 23%, all mere days before schools are set to open. While children are typically less affected than older generations, rampant community infection will, of course, increase the number of children affected, and in turn those around them. Opening schools at this time could fuel spread in communities at large, as was seen in Israel when they opened too soon. In this case, within a couple weeks one school had over 130 cases of COVID-19, and thousands of students and teachers were forced to self-quarantine, despite precautions. Other regions are reopening schools successfully, but they tend to have lower infection rates to begin with.

The harsh truth is that schools are struggling to reopen in Colorado not for a lack of will but because adults failed to follow the rules. Every time we skip physical distancing, or don’t wear a mask in public, COVID-19 infections will rise. Additional inconsistencies in policy mandates and statewide enforcement are also contributing to rising cases, further preventing the reopenings of our schools. Apparently, too many of us have decided our right to drink, race and yee-haw without precautions are more important than a child’s right to learn.

We know the best measures to curb COVID-19 include physical distancing, wearing masks, handwashing, and now, thanks to mounting evidence for airborne transmission, well ventilated spaces. If we are serious about safely reopening schools, we must first reduce cases by eliminating inconsistencies in our response and enforcement.

To this end, it’s time for another round of “stay at home.” Travel should be reduced. Indoor bars and restaurants should be closed. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently went on record to say he’s not eating at indoor restaurants. Large indoor gatherings should be eliminated, such as the 50-person church exemptions, and preventative measures should be enforced at outdoor gatherings. Working remotely should be strongly encouraged by the governor. Higher education should remain fully online, barring complications such as visa concerns or laboratory work. Notably, those who hold official positions but are unwilling to uphold state health guidelines should be held responsible.

COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon, and a child’s right to education should be a top priority for us all. It’s time for Coloradans to flatten the curve again — and next time keep it flat.

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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.