Are COVID metrics informing school reopening or rationalizing it?
Using numbers does not make something science. And arranging numbers in a color-coded table does not make them data. Numbers can sometimes lend a sheen of objectivity to decisions that are ultimately subjective. We must always ask if numbers are informing a decision or rationalizing it.
Gov. Ned Lamont, the Connecticut Department of Public Health, and the Department of Education have produced a set of numbers, the Indicators for Consideration of Learning Models, to guide decisions about reopening schools in the pandemic. They are not data or the results of scientific study. They are policy metrics. They are “adapted from” work by the Harvard Global Health Initiative (HGHI). Connecticut’s adaptation only loosely follows the original’s categories and guidance.
Most important, the HGHI guidelines prescribe remote learning at Connecticut’s rate of COVID-19 transmission, where “pandemic-resilient learning spaces” are unavailable. When some are available, HGHI recommends giving priority to the youngest students and those with special educational needs to be educated in person. HGHI defines a pandemic-resilient learning space as having enhanced outdoor air ventilation and upgraded filtration, pandemic resilient bathrooms and sanitation resources.
Connecticut’s policy collapses all of this detail into “favors more in-person learning,” which Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona further interpret to mean in-person attendance at full capacity.
Connecticut’s transmission rate is low for the United States, but moderate in a global context. Given the level of transmission, the lack of pandemic-resilient spaces, and the over-ambition of attempting full attendance, there is little doubt that the reopening of schools will lead to cases of COVID-19 among students, staff, and families. We know that the virus spreads easily within households. Few children will die of the virus, though many may suffer lifelong health complications and perhaps the traumatic loss of teachers, parents and grandparents. School-based transmission will spread to the wider community, directly contributing to the much-anticipated second wave.
The state seems willing to accept some number of cases. If zero is not the goal, how many are acceptable? The thresholds in Connecticut’s Leading Indicators chart can easily be converted to case counts. The cutoff value of 10 daily cases per 100,000 residents, below which the state encourages in-person attendance, works out to 350 new cases per day, statewide. The cutoff of 25 daily cases per 100,000 residents, beyond which the state recommends fully remote education, equals 875 cases per day – almost the daily case count at the peak of the epidemic here in April and May. If we had applied the state’s guidelines last Spring, children would have been in school during some of the worst days of the pandemic. The terrible numbers would almost surely have gone further up, rather than down. That is what the data says.
Before individual US states began opening their schools at record levels, no country in the world had opened its schools with more than 10 cases per day per 100,000. Singapore had the highest rate on the date of its reopening at 8.5. Denmark, the second highest, reopened with a rate of 4.4, about the same rate New Haven has today. Singapore and Denmark, in different ways, have resources and societal norms quite different from Connecticut’s. Of 38 countries that reopened on a national schedule, only four had average rates higher than Connecticut’s in the week before school. That is what the data says.
Connecticut’s plan contemplates keeping students in school, even under a hybrid model, at alarmingly high levels of community transmission. If cases rise to the top threshold level, Connecticut will surrender all of the progress it has made in this pandemic before endorsing remote learning. We will lose our chance at suppression of the virus, and of course, as we have already witnessed, suffering will fall hardest on individuals, families and communities who can least afford it: people of color, immigrants, older adults, people with disabilities and those experiencing poverty. In Connecticut, the rate of death from COVID-19 for Hispanic residents is about double that for white residents; for Black residents, it is almost triple. That is what the data says.
No discernible scientific research or data supports the state’s modifications to the HGHI guidance or the safety of its tiered approach. Instead, the state’s school reopening policy rationalizes a course of action slanted toward in-person attendance, perhaps for the benefit of student learning, mental health, care and connection — real needs that we must work together to address — or perhaps for the Governor’s originally stated reason: “to have a school day and a school week that employers could bank on.”
Jill R. Kelly is a Preceptor in Geospatial Analysis at Harvard University and a volunteer with New Haven Public School Advocates.
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