Under what conditions should schools open? The following important proposal was posted on the Schiller Institute website:
July 27, 2020
by Stanley Ezrol
There is much heated discussion about how the United States school system can function under conditions of pandemic infection. The pandemic is the result of undermining the world’s national health systems over the last 50 to 75 years, combined with the failure to institute the post-World War II global recovery that President Franklin Roosevelt had designed as the immediate task of the post-War world.
Nothing we can do within the education system can fix this. What is necessary is a total overhaul of the planet’s economic systems. The LaRouche Political Action Committee (LPAC) has issued, The LaRouche Plan to Reopen the U.S. Economy: The World Needs 1.5 Billion New, Productive Jobs. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has secured the agreement of the heads of state of the other four permanent members (P5) of the United Nations Security Council to participate in a summit in the near future to discuss the perilous situation we all confront as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are growing in strength. Those five nations, acting in concert, can lead in reversing our current disaster. Helga-Zepp LaRouche has issued a call that this summit be held immediately, and no later than early September, to avoid total chaos and disaster.
COVID-19 attacks our school systems based on infection from the general population. In the absence of efficient medical control of the virus, intensive testing, contact tracing, physical prevention of infection through social distancing, protective masks and other means, sanitary measures including hand-washing, and ventilation to dilute infected interior air with fresh air using anti-viral filters, including ultraviolet treatment are among the methods that must be in use in all “hot-spot” areas, as well as in our schools. It has been demonstrated that in nations where these measures were strictly implemented and supported by cultural norms including shared responsibility for the future, the pandemic has been effectively shut down.
The costs involved are well beyond anything now contemplated in our budgets. To re-open our schools and the rest of our economy safely and effectively, we have to abandon the failed attempts to shore up our bankrupt financial institutions with funding counted in trillions of dollars, and restore a commitment to the General Welfare, as emphasized by the Declaration of Independence (under the title, “Common Good”), and Constitution. Contrary to claims made in the name of liberty, the U.S. Constitution and subsidiary laws do not legalize the spread of deadly viruses. It is criminal to tolerate that kind of deadly attack against the people of the world, and we must not respect this vicious idea.
The purpose of this report is to focus collaborative discussion among students, educators, parents, healthcare providers and researchers, and others, not about what we think is possible under current constraints, but what is both possible and necessary if we mobilize the most advanced ideas we can to ensure that education is safe for students, their families, and the teaching and other staff. While focusing on the education system, we must also fight for the necessary improvements in our overall approach to containing the pandemic and expanding the productivity of our economy.
Most districts have been considering some mix of distance (virtual) learning and in-person classroom education. Virtual learning prevents transmission through the school system. Unfortunately, many families depend on all adults in the household working during the day, who cannot leave their children at home alone without risking difficulties of many different kinds. Children of impoverished families, immigrants with poor mastery of English, grade school students, and others, often cannot benefit from online instruction for various reasons including inability to afford high speed internet connections and the required computer equipment. Some districts have taken steps to equip these students, with varying degrees of success.
As the pandemic is growing out of control in the United States, most districts are turning to virtual learning despite stern injunctions from the President and Secretary of Education. Many have not yet made their decisions. As of mid-July, at least 18 states were considered “red zones,” including some of the most populous—California, Florida and Texas. Of all the 13,500+ school districts in the nation, many districts in these red zone states are in the forefront of planning to start the school year with entirely remote learning, whether they want to or not. The largest of these states—California–has some 1,000 districts. The first and second biggest school districts in the state—Los Angeles (2nd largest in the nation) and San Diego, have already announced they will start the school year with all on-line learning, because of the immediate safety issues. (Together L.A. and San Diego have over 800,000 students).
On July 21, four large counties in the Washington, D.C. area (Arlington, Loudoun, and Fairfax in Virginia, and Montgomery in Maryland), that had decided to offer an in-person learning option and received parents’ choices for either virtual or in-person learning, announced, after lengthy school board debate, that they were withdrawing the in-person option. The reasons given were that they could not confidently ensure the safety of students and staff, and that many teachers refused to teach in-person and requested leaves of absence, resigned, or retired.
As of July 20, the 1.1 million student, 1,800 school New York City district, the nation’s largest, has not announced reopening plans. It has been considering offering parents various options combining online and in-person schooling. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has threatened that, based on level of compliance with health safety guidelines in N.Y.C., he may delay or modify the reopening.
D.C. School District officials said on July 16 that they will not announce their decision on what to do about their schools until July 31, and it will be dependent on the D.C. Department of Health’s evaluation of the virus in the Washington Metropolitan area.
Unfortunately, although the virtual option, given the lack of preparation, will probably reduce the spread of the virus, it will not provide free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all of our students.
For that reason, the President is correct in seeking full school re-opening, but we cannot re-open the schools to turn them into death traps as the overly hasty reopening of businesses and recreation activities has created. We are now launching a campaign to institute measures that will safely fulfill our responsibility to FAPE.
What Must We Do?
In the context of all-out mitigation enforcement nationally, the following measures should be under consideration depending on the specific requirements of each locale, district and school. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Districts in areas of low infection may have to make fairly minor changes to their practices to safely re-open. As you will see below, we have many school buildings that do not even meet minimum requirements for normal functioning, let alone coping with the pandemic we now confront. Our system of funding schools locally has created enormous differences in readiness. The “Matthew Effect” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) must finally be driven out of our system.
While recognizing flexibility of choice, it is still necessary that there be an appropriate level of screening for the disease everywhere to guarantee that potential outbreaks are rapidly quashed.
1. Test, sanitize, and, where required, isolate students and staff
In 2019 there were 56.6 million elementary and secondary school pupils nationwide, and a roster of some 8 million educators and other school staff. There were 5.8 million private school students and 50.6 million public. The public school population included 35.5 million students pre-K to 8, and 15.3 million in high school. These define the parameters of required testing to start school.
One estimate of the extra cost per pupil for the 2020-2021 school year, as reported by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is $2,300, to cover the testing and monitoring (temperature checks, etc.), and also the extra cleaning and sanitizing requirements. The cost of actual viral testing alone has been estimated at $1,000 per student. The cost for all 50.6 million public students at $2,300 each, would be $116 billion.
Personnel will not catch COVID-19 in school if the infected are, depending on the severity of their illness, placed in isolation from healthy students or in medical treatment facilities. Everyone entering a school building should be effectively sanitized of the virus. In counties with a low incidence of infection, inexpensive means like frequent (possibly several times per day) screening for fever and checking for symptoms including coughing and shortness of breath are used and can keep the spread of infection under control.
In areas of the United States with high infection rates, actual testing for the virus must be used to prevent large numbers of asymptomatic but infected people from infecting others. The more frequently the testing is done and the more rapidly the results are returned and acted upon, the safer the environment. Ideally, testing on the way into and out of school, and, possibly more frequently, including surveillance testing, would be the best thing to do. A source who has studied the different tests currently in use reports that the Abbott laboratory test with a 15-minute turn around would be difficult to use in schools.
Health officials in each locale should plan testing and re-testing routines based on the density of infection and other factors. Testing all personnel on average once every two weeks is in the range that would work.
Districts in high density infection areas might find that testing several days before school opening, followed by periodic testing with the same delay factor, might provide adequate screening. If adequate testing is not possible, schools should not re-open.
A rough estimate of the annual (40 week) requirement would be to multiply the equipment, supplies, and labor effort required per test by 20.
Few public school districts have proposed this kind of testing for their students due to lack of resources. On Monday, July 13, every West Point cadet was tested for COVID-19 on arrival. Those who tested positive, and a dozen or so did, were tracked into beginning their training in isolation. Similar regimens are followed at the other service academies and training programs. If we can make that effort for the well-being of those who serve in the armed forces, we ought to be able to take the same quality approach to make sure our future cadets, industrial workers, engineers, scientists, astronauts, educators, artists, classical musicians, and geniuses of all varieties survive to realize their great potential gifts to the future.
In China, South Korea, and other locations, at least some schools require those entering to go through a routine series of steps including getting a fresh protective mask, disinfecting the soles of their shoes, disinfecting their clothing, and screening for the virus directly or for symptoms. Full plastic face shields should be considered to provide better protection than a cloth mask alone.
The requirements for this are one disposable mask per day for each person, plus the cost of disinfectant.
Some jurisdictions have proposed that parents report on their children’s symptoms, even though they understand that this is unreliable due both to the parents’ difficulties and the large proportion of asymptomatic cases of infection.
At this point, it is difficult to estimate what level of infection has to be prepared for in school. It might be the case that if what seems to be an expensive approach to bringing in the healthy students and isolating the infected is taken, we can be more relaxed about what goes on among the healthy majority of students. Measures taken in isolation areas might have to be more rigorous than what we describe here, but, hopefully, that would affect a small minority of the students and educators.
2. Renovate school facilities
In the same spirit with which nations built new medical facilities to cope with COVID-19 patients, schools must be upgraded to keep students safe. This should include:
Providing “intake” areas to go through the screening and sanitizing routine.
Include isolation and treatment areas to manage personnel suspected of infection who have arrived at school.
Increase instructional and other space to allow for the necessary social distancing. As noted above, if infected personnel can be effectively restricted, the school areas may not require the rigor described here. Isolation areas will require greater rigor. The sooner we implement Chinese/South Korean-style mitigation among the people at large, the sooner we will be able to streamline what we do in schools. That said, doubling the distance between students from approximately three feet to six feet, means, depending on the configuration of each classroom, multiplying the area used per student by approximately four. For schools now at, near, or beyond expected capacity, as most are, that is a lot of temporary or permanent building that must be done. Extra space might be provided by modern temporary structures such as hoop buildings where the climate allows. Schools may be able to extend instructional space into areas like cafeterias or gymnasiums that might not be used for the duration of the pandemic.
Provide sanitary requirements including available running warm water and soap, proper hand sanitizer at every classroom entrance/exit, office, and at stations throughout the school.
Aids to help prohibit transmission, including items such as plexiglass desk separators against transmission by breathing or talking, as used in South Korea and China, should be considered. Separators come in various sizes and cost approximately $25.00 per desk. They certainly add some protection to cloth masks, but it is not clear how much. In order to be an effective “sneeze guard,” they should be more than 20 inches tall on three sides.
Depending on the number of personnel, their arrival schedules, and how much time is allotted for intake (30 minutes is the length of time during which we can expect students to arrive prior to the bell.) If we estimate 15 seconds between each person to maintain distancing, that means, 120 people can enter through each line in 30 minutes. That would mean that 10 lines are required to service 1200 people. That seems like a lot, but modestly large school cafeterias may have six to 10 food lines. Each line would require 3 – 5 staff to process everyone through, which would mean 30 – 50 staff on intake processing. This could be changed by allowing more time, for intake. Experimentation with different approaches might help discover efficiencies.
Unfortunately, our nation’s 13,500 school systems, including approximately 100,000 installations, needs extensive upgrading even without considering the special work that has to be done for pandemic-proofing. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) most recent (2017) “report card,” gave our school systems a grade of D+. They estimated underfunding of normal operations and maintenance at $38 billion per year. Of permanent structures at these facilities, 24% were rated “fair” or “poor.” If the 31% of installations including temporary structures to accommodate rapid expansion are considered, 45% of installations are rated “fair” or “poor.” Many of these “temporary” structures are rapidly deteriorating after a decade or more of service. Fifty-three percent of school facilities require modernization or renovation to be put into “good” condition. Windows, plumbing, or air-conditioning, all systems important to COVID-proofing are rated “fair” or “poor” in 30% of public-school facilities. Four out of ten schools do not even have long-term plans in place to do the necessary improvements. ASCE estimates that schools spent $49 billion per year on their facilities between 2011 and 2013, but needed to spend an additional $58 billion per year for current maintenance plus $77 billion to cover deferred maintenance, and $10 billion to accommodate expected expansion.
If we make the fair assumption that that picture has not drastically changed since the 2017 report, that means that school facilities expenditures would exceed budgeted costs by $145 billion, without even providing for the special needs of the pandemic. As of now, the Federal Government provides almost no funding for school facilities. We do not have a break-down on how much of the routine maintenance and upgrading cost consists of items necessary in the pandemic situation, but as a rough figure, we can estimate the cost will be in the range of $145 billion, and that will not even bring all school facilities up to a “good” rating.
3. School Activities
Decisions must be made on how to do things and how to provide the facilities and staffing necessary to do them.
Cafeterias. In U.S. schools these are often the rooms where closely packed students let loose for 30 minutes with shouting, shows of anger and affection, occasional food fights, and other things good for the virus and bad for the students. Many districts have decided to close cafeterias and ask each student to bring their own food and eat it in their classroom. This leaves open the problem of feeding students who are on school breakfast or lunch programs because their families cannot otherwise afford to feed them. Variants include letting students pick up lunch in the cafeteria, but eat in a more controlled setting. As the calculation for intake lines teaches us, social distancing slows down any line. Normal school cafeteria lines leave about two inches between students, and that is totally unacceptable. Students bringing lunch, or serving students from rolling carts or the equivalent are probably more efficient approaches.
Athletics. Athletic activities including training and competitive sports are highly popular. Unfortunately, these activities involve varying levels of physical contact, heavy breathing, shouting, potential injury, and physical conflict that can promote viral transmission. Most gymnasiums are large enough and have high enough ceilings so that, with appropriate ventilation, the air quality can be reasonably safe as long as distancing is maintained. Smaller exercise rooms may become very unhealthy places.
Schools must assess what activities can continue, where they can take place, and whether modifications of the rules to reduce physical contact or proximity can be made.
Music and other performance arts. These provide special difficulties because singing and loud speech carry a heavier viral load than normal breathing and talking. Large choruses, orchestras, and crowded stages are best avoided. Spacing in properly sized indoor rooms can be relatively safe. “Band in a tent” can be set up out-doors in good weather. The open sides allow air circulation and reduces the viral load.
4. Care of School Facilities
Restrooms, hallways, classrooms, desks, computers and other equipment, floors, walls, trash cans, and other areas, furnishings, and equipment, must be sanitized frequently. In late grade school and secondary school, students can be assigned to take care of these chores in the classroom, but this will involve a large increase in the non-educator staff, possibly a doubling.
Our students depend on bus transportation to school. School buses are often crowded and poorly ventilated. Without reducing the number of students coming to school daily, school bus fleets will have to be expanded and, in part, replaced. The buses should be well ventilated and roomy enough to accommodate spacing.
The requirements of building to the necessary level depend on the quality and quantity of the existing transit fleet. Doubling the fleet to accommodate necessary distancing may be adequate.
Facilities for parent drop-off and pick-up of students must access an appropriate intake area.
Routine levels of school staffing will not be sufficient to guarantee that mitigation measures agreed upon will be enforced. This may require a doubling of school staff, including instructional assistants, counselors, and health care providers.
Whereas schools may now be staffed with approximately one LPN or equivalent per 1,000 students, more highly-trained personnel and medical assistants are required to deal with potential pandemic outbreaks, maintain isolation of the infected and those under observation for possible infection. Two medical staff per 1,000 students would mean 100,000 medical staff nationally.
The overall average number of students to teachers nationally is approximately one teacher for every sixteen students. This average, however, has to be considered carefully. Typical academic classes may have 25 to 30 or more students and one teacher. Special needs classes, elective classes, and some advanced classes may have as few as three or four students.
Given the critical nature of following behavior guidelines to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, we need at least one educator for every ten students in class. We do not have fine grain data that would make it possible to provide anything more than a rough estimate of personnel requirements. Currently, there are approximately 3.1 million teachers and 1.7 instructional assistants serving the 50.6 million public school students in the nation. This gives us an average of 1 instructional employee for every 10.5 students. That is a ratio that should work, except that some teachers will be in much smaller classes than that. As a rough estimate, we should assume that we will need 4.6 million teachers and 2.5 million instructional assistants. This would mean enlarging the pool of potential recruits significantly.
Another factor is that there are many teachers who, due to age or other health complications, are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection than others. Some number of these teachers will take extended leave or resign rather than risk infection in the classroom. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that as of 2012, 18.8% of teachers were over 55 years old. This is a reasonable estimate of the number of teachers who, due to age, other health conditions, or other reasons to avoid teaching, might not return to the classroom. That would add an additional 9.5 million teachers to be replaced. We do not have similar data on age for instructional assistants, who are generally paid in the range of $15.00 per hour. Both younger people on their way toward full teaching positions, or other career choices, and older people, possibly following a teaching or other career, tend to take these positions. It would be reasonable to expect that a significant portion of these individuals would not want to risk direct contact with infected students at that pay level, especially if they had special health concerns.
Hallways, particularly if, as is generally done, secondary students change classrooms during the day, are generally monitored only to keep the traffic moving and avoid fights. Students and staff will have to get used to avoiding friendly chats, and other previously innocent behavior.
The maintenance staff must be able to take care of the added burden of keeping everything sanitized.
Traditionally, school buses are staffed only by a driver in normal situations. To be able to maintain distancing, use of masks, and avoidance of shouting, and other virus spreaders, one or more bus aides should be added, depending on the number and behavioral profile of the students. Since school bus driving is generally a low paid part-time hourly function, many drivers are semi-retired or hoping to move into a better position. A video made by the Roanoke County Virginia school system pointed out that half of that County’s bus drivers are older than 65. They have good reason to not return to their positions next year.
The predicament of low-paid non-teaching school staff in this situation might force a decision to provide a living wage for these often very dedicated and underappreciated workers in education.
We can have safe school attendance, but only if we are making the whole world safe and prosperous. Investment must be shifted from salvaging financial concerns that produce nothing for the economy into growing the economy quantitatively, and qualitatively, as the LaRouche plan explains. The education system is long overdue to receive resources proportionate to the importance of its role in building our future, and many or our major financial institutions that have reaped the benefits of government finance are long overdue for bankruptcy.