Oregon school buildings closed early in the coronavirus pandemic because we know children are drivers of respiratory virus spread, even if they are less likely to show symptoms of COVID-19. In the months since then, our understanding of the disease and its effect on kids has continued to evolve, but it remains far from settled. This virus has been with us for less than a year, and good science takes time.
We do know this: Schools cannot eliminate every risk of infection, even with rigid hygiene and physical-distancing measures, masking enforcement, and important upgrades to ventilation systems — all of which require significant investments in a time of budget cuts. Teachers and students will get sick. Families will get sick. Some will die. Survival does not mean complete recovery: We are seeing potentially long-term health impacts on adults recovering from COVID-19, and we do not yet fully understand the effect on children.
We also know children and families suffer when schools are closed. We rely on schools for child care, food, safety and security. Schools are an integral part of our social safety net, even if they have not been funded accordingly. That does not excuse putting our children and teachers at risk of an infectious disease.
In order to allow our children to return to school as safely as possible, we must collectively do everything we can to reduce community transmission. We must stop going to crowded indoor spaces where we spend more than 15 minutes unmasked — no restaurants, no bars, no concerts or indoor athletic events. We must refrain from having indoor multifamily gatherings. No traveling for leisure. (And please, do not pull your mask down to talk with someone. Cover your nose!) We will have many more summers and opportunities for fun if we sacrifice now. We owe that to our kids.
My family is taking every precaution. As a nurse practitioner married to a registered nurse, we have workplace exposure, and we could be unwitting vectors in our community. Moreover, we live in a multigenerational household with grandparents. That is why we have not left Central Oregon since March. We support local restaurants by ordering takeout and picnicking in parks. We attend meetings through Zoom and WebEx.
Our children are about to start first and third grades in the Bend-La Pine online program, and they will likely remain online even if schools do reopen. This will not be the neighborhood school experience we wanted for them. We miss their fantastic teachers and the Silver Rail community, but it is the best choice for our family.
Other families face different challenges, and many are considering “learning pods.” I urge you to be cautious. Look hard at the risk of case clusters in this setting that could set our whole community back and keep our schools closed indefinitely.
Also consider the impact of pods on existing disparities. To address these, we must all advocate our state and federal leaders to allow (and fund) child care options that have the lowest possible risk. One option would be Safe Centers for Online Learning (SCOLs) — online learning pods in schools following rigid science-based guidelines. These are not allowed by the latest Oregon Department of Education guidelines, but I am hopeful we can change that.
Please know and understand the risk of this disease. Sacrifice now for the future of our children. Advocate to fund education as it must be funded given the important role schools play in our society. If we ALL do this right, our schools will be there when it is safe to go back.
Stay safe. Stay well. Trust science. We will get through this together.