School closures - based on science or fear? - Must Read Alaska
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Thursday, September 24, 2020
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School closures – based on science or fear?

By WIN GRUENING

With the school year beginning and coronavirus not yet gone, getting America’s kids back to school full-time presents a major challenge.  With over 50 million K-12 students in 130,000 schools and 14,000 school districts, a variety of plans have been advanced.  

Predictably, in some places, some will use fear of the virus to leverage political gains.

While the federal government wants schools to reopen, some school districts are bowing to teachers who demand more money or threaten strikes. Teachers’ unions in some major cities under the umbrella of demandsafeschools.org have conditioned their return to the classroom on implementation of “racially just” schools.

This includes defunding police, federal bailouts of schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and a moratorium on charter schools and standardized testing.

In Alaska, Anchorage reversed plans for part-time classroom instruction and will conduct all classes remotely.  Mat-Su and Ketchikan announced fulltime school 4 or 5 days per week. Haines and Skagway plan a hybrid approach combining online instruction with in-person classes.

Despite CDC guidance advocating school re-opening and a DHSS-established medium-level Covid risk environment, the Juneau School District inexplicably cancelled their hybrid plan in favor of a distance learning model. Reaction on social media was immediate and emotional. Concerned commenters noted “People will have to quit their jobs”, “This is going to impair learning for so many of our children”, “How can JSD ensure participation”, and “I can’t imagine the stress on parents.”

Proponents of in-classroom instruction worry about the damaging social, emotional, and economic effects of keeping students at home.

A July 29 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine by academic experts in education, epidemiology, and global health from Harvard and the University of St. Andrews concludes that children denied in-person instruction “will lose out on essential educational, social, and developmental benefits; neither the economy nor the health care system will be able to return to full strength given parents’ caretaking responsibilities; and profound racial and socioeconomic injustices will be further exacerbated.  We believe that safely reopening schools full-time for all elementary school children should therefore be a top national priority.”

On the other side, many who oppose re-opening schools claim that students, teachers, and their families risk death by returning kids to classrooms.  It appears, however, that these concerns are based more on fear than science.

The experience of countries where schools re-opened (or never closed) demonstrates that susceptibility, infectiousness, or both, are lower among younger children.   School re-openings haven’t led to increased case counts in Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Austria, Taiwan, or Singapore. The United Kingdom, which leads Europe in Covid-19 cases and deaths, plans to reopen schools full time this month with appropriate precautions.

In Alaska, children aged 10 years or younger comprise only 4.7% of all COVID-19 cases – fewer students than comprise one classroom.  Only one person under age 19 has been hospitalized.  No deaths have been recorded for anyone under the age of 30.

In the first week of August, Alaska’s COVID-19 resident case numbers and deaths remain among the lowest of all states. Alaska had 3,280 total cases with only 2,407 active, 32 current hospitalizations, and 24 total deaths – with approximately 58 percent of all cases concentrated in the Anchorage area. 

Juneau’s numbers are even healthier. At time of this writing, of Juneau’s 96 total resident coronavirus cases, only 8 were active with no current COVID-19 hospitalizations, and no local deaths. 

How does this translate into the necessity to close Juneau schools?

Clearly, a “one-size fits all” approach makes little sense when Covid-19 statistics vary widely among different regions and communities.

Remote learning, especially for young children, is a poor substitute for full-time in-classroom instruction. Younger children require monitoring and continuity of instruction as well as help navigating required technology. Parents forced to stay at home with their children are often ill-equipped to provide it.

Science, education, and economic factors, therefore, argue in favor of full-time classroom instruction. This is most critical  for elementary school age children – presuming community health resources are not over-taxed. And that certainly seems to be the case in Juneau and many other Alaska communities.

Teachers with risk factors can be excused and tasked with online learning or other assignments. Some families may opt to keep their children home.  As much as possible, these situations should be accommodated.

But, if we believe children come first, then fears must be overcome in favor of science and common sense.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.

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Latest comments

  • Start terminating unneeded teachers and administrators if schools do not open and pass that education money directly to parents. Then see if teachers demand to re-enter the classroom.

  • It’s not about the virus any more. This is a planned dismantling and disruption of our way of life… The Globalist-Left coalition is implementing their game plan… They even control our governor. The proof is in the pudding, as they say… They have assumed control.

    • The powers that shouldn’t be can’t even legitimately use the term emergency.
      The definition of emergency:
      a serious, unexpected, direct threat, great peril, dangerous situation, requiring immediate action.
      a person with a medical condition requiring immediate treatment.

      There is no emergency. There hasn’t been one for months.
      Because there is no emergency, there are no grounds for emergency orders.

  • I will likely get in trouble for the following. I believe it is fairly well established that women are more risk-adverse than men. And when it comes to education generally, women are more involved in instruction, administration and as parents of school children. The Covid “crisis” sets the stage for the risk-adverse to have a field day and that is certainly happening. Schools are no longer run by elected school boards and administered by bureaucrats; raw FEAR is running schools now. I am a bit surprised that so many are willing to accept catastrophic educational outcomes for children.

    For many, including some that I know, virtually any risk is too much risk when it comes to Covid. Schools are shut down without regard to any factor other than perceived risk — FEAR. An utterly spineless Mayor in Anchortown seeks to deliberately bankrupt restaurants and many other retail businesses based on vague, shifting, non-objective data that he calls “science.” This state of affairs WILL CONTINUE until a critical mass of citizens decides to accept some risk in their lives. Until that happens, things will remain the same. Or get worse.

  • If Anchorage School District remains closed by November all property owners should get a rebate for our taxes that are going to maintain buildings. Same goes for the Municipality if offices remain closed than some of the taxes need to be reimbursed to the property owners.

  • Thank you for your contribution here Win. I’ve been saying this a lot: whatever we do, is going to require a lot less fear to do it.

  • Folks, I believe in choice in education and that the State should promote it through some kind of voucher program where the funding follows the student. My wife and I homeschooled our son (to the howls of some village parents who wanted him to be indoctrinated by the left with their kids) – he scored 99.9% on the ACT and 99.9% on the Alaska HSGQE – without the left-wing nonsense and with promotion of work ethic, his parents’ Christian conservative values – including loving and respecting our neighbors, and a strong love for country and state. Our son is not a genius – he just learned to love learning and worked hard.
    I will be the first to say homeschooling isn’t for everyone: 1. it’s a LOT of work and takes a lot of time; 2. we paid for it out of pocket – not all will be able to afford it without a voucher system; and 3. not every parent has the background or ability to teach homeschool (though I believe they can learn along with their kids). But what about their socialization? Homeschooled kids do just fine without having to learn how to be rotten as their public schools descend to the lowest rotten denominator. No drugs, no bullying, no propaganda.
    So I’m not afraid of closing the public schools – but I grieve for the loss of opportunity for those who choose such and for those for whom homeschooling is a very difficult option. One good point in closing public schools is the loss of power by the teachers’ unions – who are largely to blame for the leftward lurch in our curriculae and the extreme cost of public education in Alaska.

  • “Success at school begins at home”. I published this article in Juneau Empire in June, 1993. It is still current today. Here is the bottom line: Place a student from a home that values education in a class with a teacher who loves and proficient in his/her subject and enjoys teaching, and learning takes place. Everything else is a “window dressing”

  • Excellent article, Win. Why would the Anchorage School District want to open the schools when it still gets massive funding from the State? This also calls into question, “Why do we need certificated teachers”? Why does the ASD need to employ janitors, bus drivers (both ASD and contractor), security officers, etc? Seems as if the ASD IS a job programs–not for students but for employees.

    The recent article in ADN from Superintendent Bishop says it all: It is ALL about the money, not the kids.

  • Based on politics, to make the economy as bad as humanly possible during the runup to Nov 3. Schools will reopen on Nov 4. Color me cynical. Cheers –

  • Science or fear? Neither. It is politics pure & simple. Until those in authority face real consequences for mandating failed Covid policies based on Fake science & politics we will never see an end to this madness. Recently the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District mandated returning students will be required to wear masks. There are causal studies that show a correlation between mask wearing and an increase of influenza infection. Unlike Covid, the regular strain of influenza can be deadly to children. Why are we allowing this horrible experiment to continue?

    • I guess when it comes to reading about a child dying from the Kung flu you just refuse to read it or burn the newspaper or turn off the TV rather than face the facts. Go ahead stick your head deeper into the sand.

      • It is tragic when a child dies. It is also tragic when everyone else is denied their liberty to live because of hysteria and paranoia that something might happen. The statistics over several months show minute risk to children and minimal to healthy adults.
        We cannot all spend the rest of our days huddled under our blankets shivering in fear. If that is you, stay home. But let the rest of us and our children live our lives. It’s better to die while you’re living than live while you’re dead.

  • Well written, Win.

  • Tell the teachers they need to conduct their virtual classes from the classrooms, instead of from their homes. Bet the opposition to opening the schools starts waning almost instantly.

    • What’s the point with trying to tamp this thing down if you force people back together GCI was giving teachers an antenna and an account to do all this. It’s not about staying home vs going to the classroom has you suggest, it’s about keeping the germs out of the school. It doesn’t really matter to me, teachers can go in and lock themselves in their classroom and not have any interaction with other teachers or they can get on their computer at home and do the same thing.

  • Both? The scientific research on reopening schools should be scary to teachers and parents. Georgia saw 260 students and 8 teachers test positive on the first day of school. Reopening should depend on the state of the virus in a given community or school district, not a broad mandate. What’s scary to me is people trying to politicize a global health pandemic where 1,000 Americans are dying daily.

    • It’s funny that you’re on here trying to convince all these RINOs and moderates that what you’re saying, although it is true and concerning, has anything to do with Alaska. Most of them think small and think Alaska is on some remote outpost disconnected from the rest of the world and they are immune to any problem that might arise out there.

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