Sometimes we feel the ground we stand on shift like sand or even shudder like an earthquake. We feel like we might be swallowed whole. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the education of our children and grandchildren is such a time. Our expectations are upended, beliefs redrawn, and fears exposed. As an elected member of the Upshur County Schools Board of Education, I am left with only creative solutions as to how to keep our students in school. Certainly, I cannot cast off facts nor ignore policy and protocol. Yet more is required.
Truly I thank God that I am educated as a physician. After all, Docs are astute observers, thoughtful listeners, and intelligent thinkers. My good fortune is that our Doctor Daughter Maria followed in the footsteps of her Doctor Mother and Doctor Father and Doctor Grandfather. Maria has studied our current pandemic challenge. She has moved past failed assumptions and patterns. She has been patiently examining observations of COVID-19 from around the world. Using her Harvard University School of Medicine education synthesizing and her University of North Carolina Masters of Public Health exploring, Maria is bubbling with creative agency, seeking answers to our dilemma—how to keep our schools open and our teachers teaching their students face to face. Like Isaac Newton, who said that he stood on the shoulders of giants, Maria has stood on shoulders, creatively peering beyond infectious disease specialists who have helped our public health overcoming the challenges of typhoid, polio and more.
Doctor Maria Luisa Ganan Almond warns of the new virus variant. We discuss Coronavirus research and treatments often over the phone. She is also a mother of two elementary school students, so she shares a vested interest with myself and our Upshur County Schools Board of Education. She tells me, “Continuing to maintain open schools will be much more challenging as the variant takes hold in the US. Even if as deadly, increased transmissibility means a need for further, stricter lockdown.” She anticipates, “Per some epidemiologists, the world will also require a higher percentage of herd immunity to stop the pandemic.”
Beginning in 2021, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and Superintendent of West Virginia Schools W. Clayton Burch have strongly advocated for all public school students to return to in-school education, reporting a high failure rate of students receiving online classes as well as a dramatic drop in mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. Dr. Burch has wrestled with these issues for his entire tenure, as he was appointed by the West Virginia Board of Education as the 32nd State Superintendent of Schools in February 2020.
Dr. Maria encourages her elder father (c’est moi!) to be a lifelong learner, which the BOE defines as a core part of our Mission. She convinced me along the lines of opening schools, if the new variant stays away from Upshur County Schools. In districts that mask, use hand hygiene, and distance, clusters are infrequent and secondary transmission is limited. Based on early data, the number of cases of secondary transmission inside traditional public schools is less than 1 per 1,000 students. Furthermore, on average, it appears that each child infected with COVID-19 transmits to 0.1 other students and that there is even less child-to-adult transmission.
Thank you, Dr. Maria, for your medical science-based consultation. Thank you for becoming an essential member of our family on February 3, 1977, and a prime example for our excellent caliber, public schools education here in Upshur County, West Virginia.
Based on what I am learning, my support for opening schools hinges on us maintaining a week outside the red and orange zones, meaning less community spread. Further, opening remains predicated on our teachers and staff receiving vaccinations for up to 95% protection. Our county school personnel over 50 years old began vaccinations on January 7. Their second vaccination would be in 3 weeks, plus the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 21 days post-second vaccine monitoring prior to teaching face to face with students who bring to school all the exposure from their homes and our mountain community.