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Letter to the editor in OPINION section: "This is not the time to reopen" schools

1 12 20 SCHOOL AGAIN

Ventura County schools schedule available at the Ventura County Office of Education website: https://www.vcoe.org/COVID-19

 

As the father of a Nordhoff High School student and husband of a Nordhoff teacher, I was shocked to read that Ojai’s public elementary schools would be opening on Wednesday, Jan. 13, with secondary schools opening 12 days later — as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates and a new, more contagious variant is expected to overrun the state. The chief of the California Hospital Association says, “We are standing on the beach and watching a tsunami approach." Is this the best time to reopen?

In the announcement letter sent to parents on Jan. 7 by Ojai schools superintendent, Dr. Tiffany Morse, a study from Harvard and Brown universities spells out the "safe" way to open schools during high levels of community spread. While the report outlines the necessary safety protocols, the district safety plan comes up short. In particular, it makes no mention of student COVID testing, and current staff testing is infrequent. This study and every other source I checked, including the Centers for Disease Control, emphasize regular testing for staff and students as the best way to stanch school outbreaks. "Daily temp checks" will not identify the asymptomatic spreaders, now pegged at 59% of all those infected.

The Harvard/Brown group surveyed schools that opened last fall, and found an average staff infection rate higher than surrounding communities. Some districts experienced double or triple the community spread. Outbreaks were also noted in student populations, more often in secondary schools, due to breakdowns in the long list of safety control measures. Ventura County schools, including Ojai, have already charted more than 500 cases among staff and students.

For protection, the Ojai Unified School District plan focuses on personal protective equipment and surface disinfection rather than air-quality upgrades. Experts have long agreed that the virus is passed mainly through the air, in enclosed spaces. Yet, Ojai classroom air is only 50% fresh — without the recommended MERV or HEPA filters (that airlines use) and no portable air purifiers, also advised. Perhaps regular testing and air system upgrades could be funded by the governor’s new offer of $450 to $800 per student, which only requires that a plan be submitted by Feb. 1.

The Harvard/Brown study has a lot of good points, but its main premise, that schools can open safely during high community spread, contradicts the wide consensus I saw in the literature: that low community numbers are the best chance for success in opening schools safely.

We are all fatigued and impatient with social distancing and stay-at-home orders. We know that kids learn better and teachers teach better in classrooms than at home, and that everyone’s mental health has been challenged. But how does that compare to the effects of catching COVID? No contest.

For the safety of our students, teachers, staff and families, I urge the Ojai school board to rescind the decision to open elementary schools, and postpone reopening all of our public schools — until vaccines are given and conditions markedly improve.

The writing is on the whiteboard: This Is Not The Time To Reopen.

 

— Jack Gillooly is a retired elementary school teacher and national park ranger.

 
 

 

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