••• Education •••

Who’s really in charge of how schools will reopen?

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment (JCDHE) has opened a can of worms and left Johnson County students and parents wondering how schools will reopen and what the beginning of the school year will look like. The JCDHE director, Samni Areola,  released recommendations for schools to follow as far as in-person and remote learning. During a recent Facebook Live town hall, Areola stated, “We cannot open schools if we are getting 100 [new] cases a day, we cannot open schools at a 9% [positivity] rate — we need to bring that down.”

Really, the county health director gets to decide whether kids can go to school?  Well, so far, at least the Shawnee Mission School District (USD 512) is OK with that. Superintendent Michael Fulton said at a school board meeting “I just want to emphasize that we’ve made a commitment to making sure that we’re basing decisions on science.” And by that he means, according to the Shawnee Mission Post, “we’re waiting on guidance from county health officials.”

Apparently, JCDHE and Superintendent Fulton are not heeding the recommendations of study after study indicating that the rewards of reopening schools far exceed the health risks involved, when done safely. And an unelected government bureaucrat – like a public health official – should not be allowed to decide differently.

What we know currently about the health risks of reopening schools is brilliantly described in this USA Today article. Students, the people schools are supposed to serve, have virtually no health risks from COVID-19. Therefore, every effort should be made to provide students an adequate in-person education. Remote education or distance learning is certainly a viable alternative if it provided by those who know how to do it. However, as a 20-year teaching veteran, I am convinced that a make-shift remote learning arrangement would be anything but adequate. A mere continuation of public education that became necessary last spring would remain woefully inadequate.

Certainly, adults have greater health risks – the older one gets, in general, the greater the risk. And I understand how older teachers would be hesitant about going back to a school building. I am at the age that I would be very hesitant about going back under these conditions. But that can be mitigated. Accommodations can be provided for older teachers and others with health risks. That notwithstanding, according to the USA Today article, nearly two-thirds of teachers are under the age of 50, a group with much lower health risks.

If we’ve learned one thing throughout the course of the pandemic, there is no consensus concerning “the science.” Society’s approach to a scientific understanding and combating COVID-19 is not only evolving, but the tentacles of politics have compromised scientific findings and conclusions. Consider these as examples: hydroxychloroquine or the wearing of masks. Whether either is effective in combatting COVID-19 has become rooted almost exclusively in partisanship.

Contemplate the recommendations published by the JCDHE, and how they were determined. Mr. Areola claims a 9% positive rate is too high to reopen schools. How reliable is that 9% number, and how does it apply to a school setting? What is the population of those testing positive? Are they people who show symptoms, are they people of all ages, is it a representative sample of the county? And how reliable are the test results? Just type “unreliable COVID test results” in a search engine and see the reports of tens of thousands of inaccurate test results.

The JCDHE recommendations alter how schools should be organized and administered at 5%, 10%, and 15% thresholds of positive COVID-19 tests. How were those intervals determined? What is magic about the numbers 5, 10, and 15? Since no clarifications from JCDHE on how these thresholds were determined, it is clear these standards are subjective. And that subjectivity has significant consequences for the 100,000 students and those who educate them.

If that isn’t enough, this is data collected in July for a decision about schooling in September, at least six weeks into the future. One COVID-19 reality is how quickly the various types of data and the impact can change. Given that, should such consequential decisions be made using stale numbers?

This is “the science” that will determine the educational fate of public school students?

From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis virtually all lock-down and restart decisions have been subjective. They have also been arbitrary, unpredictable, and above all, confusing. This latest development in which a county health department has inserted itself into the school reopening process has done nothing but add to the confusion and uncertainty.

What seems to be lost in the mire is that the state board voted last month to prevent Governor Kelly’s executive order to move back the reopening of schools until after Labor Day from taking effect. The state board’s vote gave the responsibility for the when and how to reopen schools back to school districts, where it belongs.

But we can’t lose sight that schools exist to perform the important individual and societal duty of educating our children. Schools were not created for the benefit of the adults, but the safety of the adults is openly the focus of attention is when it comes to determining when and how schools will reopen. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) the, second largest teachers union in the country, is on record supporting strikes if their demands are not met. Many of those demands have nothing to do with teacher safety.

It should be clear that the districts’ number one priority, whether Johnson County or the other 104 counties across the state, is to reopen in-person education with the safest conditions possible.

Superintendent Fulton makes in excess of $300,000 per year. With that kind of salary comes the obligation and responsibility to make tough decisions. Letting another government entity – one with no direct ties to education – dictate the setting and quality for public school students is nothing short of misfeasance, more commonly known as passing the buck.