The Best Way to Resolve the Health Controversy Around School Reopening

6/24/2020 – 11:10 PM – This evening I was sent a link to yet another article claiming that it was safe to reopen our schools because of the positive experiences in Europe and elsewhere.  Upon diving into the article one discovers that there were entirely different implementation approaches in most of the countries mentioned and thus it was impossible to know what measures are truly effective and what may be overkill.

The article came from, of all places, Wired Magazine at https://www.wired.com/story/its-ridiculous-to-treat-schools-like-covid-hot-zones/.  Although Wired has many interesting and provocative technology articles, the last time I looked it was not considered a top medical journal.  After looking at more and more of these articles produced by journalists interviewing specific doctors, I finally had an epiphany (yes, I am a slow learner ;-).  I wrote the following response to the person who sent me the article, and have edited it somewhat for this blog article.


 

The more that I think about this problem, the more that it seems completely ridiculous for each school district to try to figure this out on their own.

We need to have, at least at the state or national level, a commission of medical and other experts who can objectively review the research studies and make an official pronouncement to the best of their abilities based on the current state of knowledge. Very few, if any, local school districts have the ability to assemble the expertise needed to make this decision.

The United States has many of the best research universities in the world, not to mention the treasure trove of expertise at the National Institutes of Health.  Even just within the state of California, we have some of the finest research institutions in the world.

I think the best course is for school districts to band together and put immediate pressure on both state and national governments to answer these questions through the work of expert commissions.

The people chosen as members of these committees need to be recognized experts and as free as possible from partisan politics.  They would be tasked with reviewing the current state of research and making recommendations about school reopening.  The current toxic partisan political environment complicates creating such a commission unfortunately, but the fate of the country’s children demands that we do our best.

In the absence of such a commission report, too many districts are relying upon information sources which they do not have the expertise to evaluate.  Wired Magazine would not be my go-to source for medical reporting, to be honest.  I have seen far too many journalist-written reports that leave me perplexed.

For example, lacking a mechanistic explanation of how children can carry the virus and yet still not infect adults really bothers me personally.  It borders on magic and just doesn’t make any scientific sense which is why it is hard for me to blindly accept these results.

I can imagine that different age groups might have somewhat different expressed versions of a protein receptor to which the virus binds before attacking a human cell. If the virus binds less tightly to the receptor version found in children that might explain why children’s infections are less severe.  This is just one hypothesis that comes to my mind; there are undoubtedly others.

However, I have read several reports of studies that say some kids have the same “viral load” as adults and yet don’t spread the virus??? This seems completely bizarre.

A lot of these studies reported in news articles are rapid, non-peer reviewed publications on preprint servers and just may not be worth the virtual paper on which they are written.  Most research communities know the major players in a specialty and they frequently interact via scientific conferences.  Not being in the field, I have zero knowledge of the reputations of the people producing the COVID-19 results, nor do most journalists have this knowledge.  Consequently I personally can not see relying on news reports to make a decision that could potentially cost someone their life.

Even though I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry and worked in top biophysics and cell biology labs for several years before joining a bioinformatics software company and getting in on the beginning of the Human Genome Project, COVID-19 is not my specific area of expertise.  I know enough science though to be skeptical of press reports.

We really need a commission of experts to step up to the plate and provide better guidance for such a consequential decision that has major impacts on school kids AND teachers in the U.S. and around the world.

In the absence of this kind of guidance, I can not blame local school districts for being cautious. These critical decisions can not be made on the basis of articles in the popular press authored by journalists or by amateurs trying to evaluate very technical research papers.


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Author: David Kristofferson

Retired scientist, teacher, bioinformatician, IT director, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist (7690 miles and 724,300 feet of climbing in 2015), backpacker, you name it! Current avocation is tutoring high school students near San Mateo, CA in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Please see the Bio link in the right sidebar for my detailed background information.

3 thoughts on “The Best Way to Resolve the Health Controversy Around School Reopening”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your statement that the decisions around how, when, and whether to reopen schools should not be left to local school districts and their politicians. Panels of experts must be assembled and should include epidemiologists, early childhood experts, teachers, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists. School district borders should be erased and younger kids should be prioritized in getting access to in-school peer group play bubbles. The school budgets should not be limited by local constraints and there should be no neighboring districts in which one is scrambling for technology while the other holds an abundance. The decisions are too weighty, the consequences too grave for each small local district to determine the process and set a budget for all the mitigating factors on their own. What a dysfunctional mess.

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    1. Please allow me to clarify slightly. Your statement above is advocating for the solution of far more issues than I am proposing to tackle in my article.

      We have a pretty short time to decide whether the medical research says if it is really safe to go back to school. Due to this immediate crisis, the best option is to assemble expert scientists and clinicians to evaluate the research and answer this single question. This group would be comparable to an NIH “study session” that reviews research proposals for those familiar with the federal research grant review process.

      I absolutely agree that the other issues you mention like equitable school funding are extremely important and need to be addressed, but I just can’t see these issues being resolved in a couple months by such a diverse group of disciplines trying to overhaul a myriad of local interests and regulations.

      We just saw what happens when too many different committees try to tackle too much in a very short time. The result was total chaos and we can’t afford a repeat of that.

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      1. True, true! I do know that educators often get left out of the planning process, when we are professionals and experts. The biggest mistake that SMUHSD made was in not actively engaging teacher leaders in the decision making process. This backfired. It’s all too common for experts in other fields to make consequential decisions that affect teaching and learning without consulting the actual teachers! Determining safety from a medical and scientific perspective is crucial, but you must know the context and environment in which such recommendations play out and take hold. It’s fine to say that children should wear masks, sit 6 feet apart in isolation from one another, but this is simply not achievable for a myriad of reasons. And this is not a condition conducive to learning. Early childhood experts are trying to wrap their heads around opening childcare centers and being told to do the same. Younger children learn by touching, playing, exploring and socializing. The local regulations hit the wall of impracticality at best, child abuse at worst.

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