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Politics and passion drive push to open or close schools, but what does the data say? | COMMENTARY

4th and 5th grade students take part in online classes in an in-person setting at Henderson-Hopkins, a charter school in East Baltimore. Henderson-Hopkins houses two programs for in-person learning, The Student Learning Center and Safe Center for Online Learning, a program run by The Y in Central Maryland. The populations from both schools are kept separate. November 14, 2020.
4th and 5th grade students take part in online classes in an in-person setting at Henderson-Hopkins, a charter school in East Baltimore. Henderson-Hopkins houses two programs for in-person learning, The Student Learning Center and Safe Center for Online Learning, a program run by The Y in Central Maryland. The populations from both schools are kept separate. November 14, 2020. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

The reluctance to reopen Maryland schools amid a deadly pandemic is understandable, particularly from parents and teachers of small children. We know that they are germ factories on a good day and the source of most every cold, flu bout and weird rash experienced in many a household. My own child has brought home, at various times: hand, foot and mouth disease from day care; influenza, strep throat and ringworm from elementary school; and molluscum contagiosum from summer camp.

So, at a time when coronavirus 1.0 is still surging and a more virulent strain is making its way across America (not to mention there’s limited vaccine availability), the idea that all of a sudden “there is no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools,” as Gov. Larry Hogan told the state during a news conference Thursday, is, to say the least, a difficult concept to embrace.

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This is especially true when we were told in March — back when cases of COVID-19 were rare and the 6,700 Marylanders who’ve since died from it were still going about their days — that shuttering schools was among the measures that “could be the difference in saving lives and keeping people safe.” It was during the last pandemic, a century ago, and initially seemed reasonable this time around.

There was so little information available and so much fear then, that people were hoarding toilet paper, wiping down their groceries with sanitizer and considering drinking bleach as a treatment if they suspected symptoms. We’re wiser now, 11 months in, recognizing that the virus is spread less through surfaces than the air, and that there are immense benefits to wearing masks, remaining socially distant and buying reasonable amounts of paper products. But we’re still terrified, and for good reason: Death can’t be undone.

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And there’s been a lot of death.

Worldwide, COVID-19 has taken more than 2 million lives. A fifth of them were American — and they were disproportionately non-white. According to Centers for Disease Control data, Black and Hispanic Americans die from COVID at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. That’s not because people of color are somehow less hardy; it’s because racism has historically limited opportunities in such communities, making people there less likely to have access to regular health care and healthy lifestyle options, and more likely to already suffer from ailments that make them susceptible to the worst consequences of coronavirus.

It’s little wonder, then, that so many people see conspiracy in the push to reopen schools, particularly in cities, where the populations tend to be Blacker and poorer than in the suburbs and rural areas. In a tweet last month that has since been deleted, the Chicago Teachers Union flat out said it was “rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny” — teachers being mostly female. Others responded that teachers unions are the real problem or that reopening is actually the equitable choice, because low-income communities of color are also least likely to thrive in a virtual education environment (thousands of students aren’t engaging at all, and districts across the country are reporting huge spikes in failing grades).

Much of that has played out in Maryland as well, with politics and passions driving people’s push to either reopen schools or seal them up for the rest of the academic year. But what does the data say about the risk? We’re woefully short on real information from either camp, much less firm details on what reopening would look like in many places.

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So, here’s what the limited data available says about the transmission risk right now. Contact tracing suggests that virus spread among students and staff in schools is minimal when people keep socially distant and wear masks, ventilation is good, and community spread is already low — pegged at around 5 to 15 new cases per 100,000 people in a study looking at successful reopening in the states of Washington and Michigan. Baltimore City’s 7-day average of daily new cases per 100,000 people was 35.8 as of Tuesday.

That’s not a lot, and it’s a far cry from the governor’s claims that reopening schools “really isn’t controversial” and that “the science is clear” — made while threatening legal action against school systems that don’t “begin a good-faith effort to return to classrooms” by March.

The science is clear on one thing: that closing brick and mortar schools has been bad for education. But pretending that the risk of grave illness or death is not a reasonable factor in the decision to return is insensitive, unhelpful and a privileged position to hold.

It’s very likely that many schools can operate in person under particular parameters with relative safety, just as many businesses and organizations have done throughout the pandemic. And for many, that’s a risk worth taking. But it is a risk, nonetheless, and that should be recognized.

Families largely have an option to remain virtual; many teachers will not. They all deserve straight talk and the chance to make a decision based on facts, not fear.

Tricia Bishop (tbishop@baltsun.com) is The Sun’s opinion editor. Her column runs every third Wednesday.

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