Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Carrie Webster this week refused a request by the state’s two teacher unions to block the return-to-school mandate issued by the state Board of Education.
Judge Webster clearly agonized over the decision, but she concluded that the unions were not able to show that the order to return reached the standard of irreparable harm.
“I think there is greater risk, but without certainty that people will become gravely sick or ill or will contract it and have adverse health consequences. It’s speculative,” Webster told the court. “The reality is people are working every day in environments that are less safe than the school system.”
In fact, there is an increasing body of evidence that school is safer than many other settings.
On the same day the case was argued in Webster’s court, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report saying the “preponderance of available evidence” indicates in-person instruction can be conducted safely as long as mask-wearing, social distancing and hygiene protocols are followed.
“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the U.S. as well as internationally, school-related cases of Covid-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the report concluded.
One of the studies cited by the CDC looked at 17 rural Wisconsin schools. The incidence of infection among students and staff was lower than in the county overall. “Among the 191 cases identified in students and staff members, only seven cases, among all students, were linked to in-school spread.”
How to deliver public education during a pandemic is a balancing act. Even though the risk of infection is typically lower with in-person instruction than many other settings, there is still a risk. However, there is a corresponding threat to the well-being of children when not in school.
“Closing schools could adversely affect students’ academic progress, mental health and access to essential services,” the CDC reported.
Steve Wotring, Superintendent of Preston County Schools and President of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, told me on Talkline recently that students are falling through the cracks.
“There have been students we have not seen (since last March) and some of those students have not engaged in the virtual learning process,” Wotring said. “We are missing some kids and we have no idea where they are.”
The CDC does warn, however, that the threat of Covid-19 spread increases with extracurricular activities. “Numerous media reports of Covid-19 outbreaks among U.S. high school athletic teams suggest that contact during both practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, increase risk,” the report found.
Our schools are more than just buildings where children take classes; they are critical community centers for learning and development, led by teachers who are typically second only to parents in the nurturing of a child.
As long as schools, teachers, staff and students take the necessary precautions, it is in the best interest of all to be back to in-person instruction.