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Are we really ready to send kids back to school?

Teachers’ union demands increased protection for students and staff

schools, teachers, unions, students, parents

School districts around the country are struggling to balance COVID-19 risks against the emotional and academic impact of kids' not being able to attend school in person. The hybrid model, which includes both in-person schooling and remote learning, is assumed to be the best compromise. But this is an area the teachers' union claims that more work needs to be done before schools are ready to confront the increased risk of having kids spend half their schooling time outside the classroom.

Variations on the hybrid model depend on the resources of the school district. In many cases, younger children and those with particular needs are offered full-time in-person classes. Older kids tend to get one or two days a week in person and the rest of the time remote. 

In an open letter to the school communities in Orange, Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland Counties, the leaders of teacher and staff unions allege that government support for school re-entry has been insufficient and the New York State guidelines are not stringent enough. They outline a number of measures to make the schools more resistant to spreading COVID-19:

1. Filtration of all building-wide HVAC systems should be upgraded or supplemented with portable units equipped with HEPA filtration.

2. COVID testing will not be adequate unless reliable results are available within 24 hours. The current wait time of up to 12 days will be ineffective to prevent and monitor asymptomatic spread of COVID. 

3. PPE supply lines should be prioritized to maintain a supply of such items as masks, gloves, and sanitizer on hand at all schools.

4. Employment issues must be addressed. School districts must ensure employment of enough staff to supervise and instruct students, even when staff members are absent for illness, quarantine, child-care, or personal leaves.

5. A 100% virtual option must be available for teachers and students who are medically compromised.

Plans should require at least a 14-day shutdown if COVID issues require school closure.

The union letter cites an article in Wired magazine, in which Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage observed that under the hybrid model, the three or four days a week spent out of school will increase the potential contacts with people carrying the virus and thereby increase the potential of bringing it into the schools. Full-time in-person schooling, with reduced social distancing, might be actually be safer than the hybrid model, as the pool of contacts will be smaller and more consistent. None of the experts contributing to the article were aware of any studies done on European countries that implemented the hybrid model in the spring.

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