My View: Tough Call but the Right Call on Schools – Here’s Why

This week began with a call by me for a calm and cautious approach, but events unfurled rapidly and changed the calculus of what such an approach looked like.  Shutting down schools, limiting public events and exercises in social distancing became prudent; buying out toilet paper and water less so.

On Friday, the DJUSD school board took the step that on Monday would have looked extreme and on Friday seemed par for the course—they are closing down the schools until April 12.  The reality is that we probably will not see them open again this school year.

Governor Newsom (see separate article) signed an executive order which will ensure districts retain state funding even in the event of physical closure.  Importantly, “The order directs school districts to use those state dollars to fund distance learning and high quality educational opportunities, provide school meals and, as practicable, arrange for the supervision for students during school hours.”

DJUSD has already announced they will continue with meals for needy students.

They have not taken steps to ensure distance learning—but, given the timeframe of the announced closure which will cancel three weeks of classes as well as the week of spring break, we might expect an announcement of distance learning at some point in the near future.

The decision was not made lightly.  At first the directive from the county health officials urged essential functions and social distancing.

On Friday, Superintendent John Bowes noted that the decision was made in consultation with the Yolo County Public Health Department and legal counsel.

Board President Cindy Pickett said she strongly supported Superintendent Bowes’ decision to close schools temporarily.

She stated, “We have been diligently monitoring the COVID-19 situation, conferring with Yolo County Public Health Department and other partners.  This is the right time for this decision.  It is important to be proactive rather than reactive. It will help to save lives.”

Vice President, Joe DiNunzio offered, “The District is working under very difficult circumstances with changing facts by the day. While no known student or staff member in Davis Joint Unified School District has been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of today, we believe that the growing spread will likely result in more cases in Yolo County or possibly our school district. This decision by the Superintendent is the right call and supported by all Trustees.”

And as much as it will be an inconvenience for parents such as myself, this is the right move.  Many parents were taking the step to keep their kids out of school even before this occurred.

The Bee ran an article yesterday: “Temporary school closures likely won’t stop coronavirus spread, CDC says.”

In it, they cite CDC officials that argue: “Regular hand washing and home isolation for students with symptoms likely have more impact than closing schools for two weeks to a month.”

“There may be some impact of much longer closures (8 weeks, 20 weeks) further into community spread, but that modeling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., hand washing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report.

“I would say the jury’s still out. There’s disagreement among experts. The evidence is clearly reasonably strong for (school closures limiting the spread of) flu, but this isn’t flu,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former Maryland health department secretary.

“Kids get very, very sick from flu, and kids don’t seem to be getting very sick from this virus,” he said. “So to the extent to which kids are passing it on to each other is really unknown and the sense to which they’re infectious to adults is not well characterized. There are a lot of unknowns still.”

The Vanguard spoke with School Board President Cindy Pickett about these findings.  The school board, she told me, was aware of the study, but pointed out that this simply means that closing schools for a month is not going to make a huge difference—in fact, re-opening schools too early could simply re-start the epidemic.

I was pointed to a 2007 AMA Journal study which looked at the 1918-1919 pandemic.

They note in their abstract: “The historical record demonstrates that when faced with a devastating pandemic, many nations, communities, and individuals adopt what they perceive to be effective social distancing measures or nonpharmaceutical interventions including isolation of those who are ill, quarantine of those suspected of having contact with those who are ill, school and selected business closure, and public gathering cancellations.”

What they found was “a growing body of theoretical modeling research suggests that nonpharmaceutical interventions might play a salubrious role in delaying the temporal effect of a pandemic; reducing the overall and peak attack rate; and reducing the number of cumulative deaths.”

They found: “School closure and public gathering bans activated concurrently represented the most common combination implemented in 34 cities (79%); this combination had a median duration of 4 weeks (range, 1-10 weeks) and was significantly associated with reductions in weekly EDR.”

Understanding that coronavirus primarily impacts with severe cases and death older and vulnerable people, while the flu hammers the school population, the evidence still shows that children can get and spread coronavirus and, as any parent knows, you get sick more often when you have young children than ever before or since.

I probably went two decades between flu episodes, but I have gotten the flu of some sort every year since I’ve had young children.

The studies suggest that duration of closure is correlated with fewer deaths.  This does not contradict the CDC modelling that suggests short term closures are ineffective.

Second, the earlier you close, the more likely you are to reduce deaths.  People asked if DJUSD even had a confirmed case—they do not, and there are only two such confirmed cases in the county.  Why should we wait until there is— read this article from FiveThirtyEight.com as they explain why the NBA shut down after just one case, because of how many players were exposed based on that one case, and the same lesson applies here.

Cindy Pickett told the Vanguard that “being proactive is better than being reactive.”

She told the Vanguard, “So, I would take the two studies to mean that closing early and for a long enough duration is critical for flattening the curve. There needs to be federal and state support to mitigate the negative impact of these closures.”

The good news is that the state has stepped up and, after some delay in the response from the federal government, they are too. The bad news—this is not going to be a matter of weeks, it’s going to be a matter of months.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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20 Comments

  1. Robb Davis

    The issue of school closures, given the nature of the spread of the disease as it is CURRENTLY understood is one of the most difficult ones right now.  It is the only area in which I see disagreement among highly-respected epidemiologists.

    As this article summarizes, we know children get COVID-19.  We know their cases are mild.  There is some evidence from China that they do spread it, but we do not know how “efficiently”.

    Even those who oppose school closings acknowledge these things but they are concerned about other social impacts of school closures: health workers having to stay home to care for kids and loss of school feeding programs for vulnerable children being the most frequently cited.  These are also valid concerns.

    I am gratified to see that DJUSD will continue school feeding and I can discern that they are going to a “grab and go” approach.  My only thought at this point is that the distribution approaches should encourage the same “social distancing” principles the rest of us are following.  If students are queuing up have them maintain some space, things like that.

    Whether you agree with the District’s decision or not (and I do), we are now in the phase of “mitigating the mitigation” of the coronavirus.  We should focus our efforts on assuring that at-risk and otherwise socially vulnerable groups receive our primary attention.

  2. Keith Olsen

    But the threshold to close schools should remain high, and the CDC has said that schools don’t need to keep students at home if there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

    So we aren’t listening to the CDC now?

        1. David Greenwald

          You should have cited where the quote came from.  That was from a March 2 article.  Given how rapidly this has progressed that reads as ancient thinking.  More recent thinking by the CDC is reflected in the Bee article which I don’t think is in contradiction to the policies implemented here.

          1. David Greenwald

            Perhaps but the critical point that my article raised and the Bee article alluded to – the difference between “temporary” or “short-term” measures and longer term closures. That’s why I believe we will likely need to close the schools not until April 12, but probably three to four months for the epidemic to run its course.

    1. David Greenwald

      From Hiram’s article: “ The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised schools on Friday that closings for at least eight weeks might be the most effective way to contain the coronavirus. ”

  3. Bill Marshall

    The reality is that we probably will not see them open again this school year.

    Almost 3 months, total (plus 2 months of summer break)… grounds crews will still need to water/mow grass, check facilities… maybe a skeleton crew of office staff… without any revenue except normal ADA $$$, and that is supposed to be used primarily for lunches (normal) and off-site learning opportunities (over and above normal, and not necessarily available to all students)… if all teachers’ and staff salaries and benefits are paid, as if things were normal, kiss the reserves bye-bye… it is what it is…

    A new reality…

    1. Matt Williams

      I just spoke by phone with my mother in Pennsylvania.  She lives in a 350-unit senior residential care facility just outside Philadelphia. As of this morning, no visitors, including family members, are permitted to visit any of the residents.  With the exception of medical and essential personnel, the facility is in full self-quarantine.

      Talikng with my sister, who lives close by, and visits mother regularly, the almost universal reaction from the families of the residents is 100% support of that proactive step.

      That and the local Davis schools situation fall into the “Pardon our dust.  Temporary inconvenience for a permanent improvement.”

      1. Bill Marshall

        What is going on in PA is also happening here… good reality check… an old book, “We Are Not Alone”… a good read, but not “gospel”… but the title applies…

        The ‘pardon our dust’ comment… from over 40 years ago, I remember a missive from Minnesota DOT (equiv. to Caltrans)… “the shortest distance between two points, is under re-construction”… true stories… informative…

        Only because I feel the need to be an ‘arse’ there is nothing we can do that will be a ‘permanent improvement’… there are always new crisises  ‘under the sun’… we are dealing with the here and now… there will be other real, or perceived crisises.  Of that I have no doubt, having lived thru, and having parents who have.

        We need to be prudent to deal with each “crisis”, but not panic.  Called “life”…

        [note ‘climate change’, which is real (for whatever cause) but it is almost no longer in the “news cycles”… the latter is almost completely focused on covid-19…]

    1. Bill Marshall

      From your cite…

      It will be considered by the Senate next week, although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cautioned that Republican senators will have to thoroughly read the 110-page bill before bringing it to a vote.

      Emphasis mine… I have family in Missouri, the “show me” state… we’ll see…
      [edited]

    2. Ron Oertel

      I’m aware that it’s a proposal at this point, apparently with Trump’s support.

      It also apparently caused the stock market to (partially) recover, for now.

      I suspect that something (and perhaps more than one thing) will be done.

  4. Stephen Hinkle

    I am not so sure.  There is so much that is unknown about how Coronavirus spreads or impacts children especially in cases that show little or no symptoms.  Coronavirus seems to impact children less than older adults.  Many kids who get it have mild symptoms.  On the other hand if it spreads to others who have health issues, such as parents, grandparents, or teachers this can be dangerous.

    There are also several other issues as well.  Not all children have stay at home parents.   Even if a they tell people to work remotely, not everyone can do so.  Persons in some occupations have to be outside the home, such as those who make deliveries, power plant operators, retail clerks, and people who repair roads and computer networks, and manufacturing equipment operators.  Plus there are a lot of single parent households now.

    in the past, when they shut down schools this should not be an expectation that 100 percent of them will stay indoors the entire time of the long closure.  There was evidence that children were in public places during the closure such as stores, malls, libraries, friends houses, and others. I think that they need to plan that this can happen especially if a child does not have a stay at home parent or gets extremely bored.  Also children need play and exercise during a prolonged closure.

    Plus I also worry about the increased danger that closures would bring to elderly family members living at home.  If a child has Coronavirus, this can be a danger to older members at home.   This could be one argument against school closures as keeping school open would reduce the amount of elder to child interaction, providing that the teachers are middle aged.  On the other hand closures would restrict the child to child spread.  i also wonder if colleges keeping dorms open while professors lecture by video from a different room in the college could reduce the amount of spread by isolating college students from older persons.

    Personally I do not think that school closures or mass public place shutdowns are going to stop this virus entirely. No one knows the true spread or number of asymptomatic cases.   plus the symptoms vary from none to very severe.  I think going out in public or having persons over is going to end up being an individual decision in the future in which that individual has to evaluate the risk involved, realizing that an open hospital bed if one gets sick may not be guaranteed. This will not matter if you are 1 or 100 years old.

    Overall I think this virus will be an extremely difficult one to contain being a worldwide pandemic.

     

     

     

     

  5. Tia Will

    Stephen

     I do not think that school closures or mass public place shutdowns are going to stop this virus entirely”

    This is true as written. However, the goal is not to “stop the virus entirely”. The goal is to “flatten the curve” so as to not overwhelm our health care system. We know we have the virus, we know it will inevitably spread. The point is to be more like S.Korea and less like Italy. We can achieve fewer cases if we can maximize individual compliance with recommendations & minimize government-enforced shutdowns. The more we get voluntary compliance, the fewer draconian measures we will need.

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