Another Calculated Risk


Last updated 10/14/2020 at 4:21pm

Next week students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be able to attend Transylvania County Schools and Brevard Academy under Plan A, in which students receive in-person instruction for a regular school day Monday through Thursday.

The decision to open the schools to K-5 students was not easy. It basically came down to better meeting students’ academic, nutritional and social/emotional needs versus the potential for COVID-19 to spread within the schools and the community. The two boards of directors ultimately decided the greater risk is not having students in school and not meeting their multiple needs.

There is plenty of evidence, as we noted in an earlier editorial, that students do not learn as well virtually as they do in a physical classroom with a quality teacher. Some students also live in unstable homes and schools provide food, adult support and a safe haven for those children.

As for the COVID-19 risk factor, our local schools have done a good job of keeping the virus in check under Plan B. Since last March, eight children between the ages of 5 and 10 in this county have contracted COVID-19. None of those children have had any serious consequences at this point in time. When parents and teachers were polled, the majority of them were comfortable with the health procedures implemented in Plan B.

Plan A, however, is going to be significantly different. Not only will students be in school twice as many days as they were in Plan B, but there could be twice as many students in the classroom. This will significantly increase student contact with their classmates and their teachers.

Transylvania County Board of Education member Marty Griffin was right to express his concerns about the lack of social distancing that would occur in the schools. According to information provided by Assistant Superintendent Brian Weaver, the average social distancing at Brevard Elementary would be 3.7 feet; at Pisgah Forest, 2.1 feet; at Rosman Elementary, 2.6 feet; and T.C. Henderson, 4.3 feet. All these averages are well below the standard 6 feet, and in some individual classrooms the distance is even less.

By eliminating one of the three safety protocols – wearing a mask, washing one’s hands and social distancing – schools are increasing the chance of COVID-19 spreading within a school.

There is also ambiguous information as to the role young children play in contracting and spreading COVID-19. Elaine Russell, director of Transylvania Public Health, said the role of children as vectors for spreading the disease is a “gray area.” On Oct. 2, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that children under age of 10 can transmit COVID-19 in school settings but that the “COVID-19 incidence among adolescents aged 12–17 years was approximately twice that in children aged 5–11 years.”

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, “data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff. That’s about 1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids, or 2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff.” That report, however, does not mention other salient factors, such as compliance with the aforementioned safety protocols, whether or not students were attending school full-time or in full classes, community spread, etc.

While younger children appear to be less susceptible to the virus, the more pressing concern is if asymptomatic students infect their teachers, parents and other relatives. Parents, however, have a choice. If they fear their children might infect them or a member of their family who is in a high-risk category, they can have their children learn entirely from home. Teachers do not have that choice. A few teachers may be able to continue teaching just remotely, but the vast majority will be with more students. Their risk of being infected could well increase.

We should always follow the science and the data during a pandemic. Thus far, the science and data show that local K-5 grades have been quite safe. As Russell said, “overall, the numbers are good.” However, just as the medical experts predicted, the virus is re-emerging in numerous states and the resurgence could escalate in the coming months. If that occurs locally, school leaders should not hesitate to revert to Plan B or even Plan C. To do otherwise would not be a calculated risk; it would be negligent and dangerous.


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