With COVID-19 outbreak, schools suspend in-person education

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With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state reaching record levels, bus drivers and teachers in quarantine, students falling ill and vacation looming, school principal Scott Hanback of Tippecanoe County, Indiana , made a tough decision this week.

The school system, he decreed, would switch to distance learning until after Thanksgiving.

It seemed like the only sure way to proceed after the myriad of disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

“It was very, very difficult,” Hanback said, adding that he had done “a lot of prayer, resting and trying to take care of my mental and physical health just so I could stay alert. “

Faced with equally bleak conditions, school systems in the United States and abroad are taking similarly difficult action. Boston, Detroit, Indianapolis and Philadelphia are among those closing classrooms or dropping plans to offer in-person classes later in the school year, and New York City could be next.

Such decisions are complicated by a host of competing concerns – namely, security against the potential educational and economic damage of schooling children at home, in front of computers, under the supervision of their parents.

Transmission of the virus does not appear to be endemic in schools themselves. Instead, many of the infections that prove to be so disruptive are believed to be occurring in the community. Educators fear things will get worse over the coming holidays, when students and staff get together with family and friends or travel to other hot spots.

The nation has entered “a period of extremely high risk,” said experts from PolicyLab, a team at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that is developing advice. They changed their advice this week, advocating online instructions only for areas where rates are rising rapidly, at least until after Thanksgiving.

Recently confirmed daily infections in the United States are breaking records in almost every round, reaching more than 153,000 on Thursday and pushing the cumulative total in the United States to around 10.5 million, with around a quarter of a million deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University count. The number of people currently in the hospital hit a record high of more than 67,000 on Thursday, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

In Hanback District, Tippecanoe County, which includes the city of Lafayette, 51 cases out of 13,800 students were confirmed in the first nine weeks of in-person classes. In less than three weeks, that number nearly doubled and cases among teachers and staff increased fivefold, Hanback said.

“The spread doesn’t really happen in the classroom. The spread occurs on nights and weekends, holidays and social gatherings, ”he said.

Due to the resulting shortage of bus drivers, students arrived at school an hour late and returned home an hour late, Hanback said.

Total coverage: Coronavirus pandemic

“Inside the schools, the same was happening with teachers and classroom assistants,” he said. “We are exhausting our reserve of replacements and it has become a daily struggle.

Weekly reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Association of Children’s Hospitals show that there have been more than 900,000 cases of COVID-19 in children and adolescents in the United States, and they are in constant increase. Nearly 74,000 cases were recorded during the week ending November 5, a record high.

Serious illnesses in children and adolescents are rare, especially in younger people, but they can often spread the disease without showing symptoms. When schools are disrupted, it is often because teachers, staff and other adult employees have fallen ill.

The academy has emphasized the importance of in-person education, but says the uncontrolled spread in many areas means it cannot safely happen in many schools.

By some estimates, more than half of American schools offer at least some in-person classes.

In New Mexico, where cases and hospitalizations have reached record levels, Amy Armstrong and her husband face a dilemma. They have been sending their 7-year-old son, Damien, to school four days a week since September. But the neighborhood outside of Albuquerque announced this week that classes will only be online starting Monday.

Leaving their jobs to look after their children – she is a bank employee, he does electrical work – could mean losing their home.

Armstrong said she understood the rationale for closing schools.

But do they understand the financial, emotional and physical impact this has on people, on families, on children in particular? she says.

In Europe, most schools reopened to some extent in September, only to see the virus skyrocket and hospitals start to fill up with COVID-19 patients. Greece reluctantly closed all schools except elementary schools this month, while Italy kept high schools on a partial schedule.

France, which has suffered from more infections than anywhere else in Europe, has kept schools open even after restaurants, bars and all stores except essential stores have closed. The number of children under 19 who tested positive has declined significantly since the semi-lockdown began on October 29, but remains high.

Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of schools in Dallas, watched and worried as the number of cases increased around him. Texas exceeded one million cases this week.

Many of the 150,000 students in the district come from disadvantaged families and about half attend at least one in-person course. Shifting to fully distance learning could mean a loss of public funding, Hinojosa said, but if schools hit a crisis point, “we have to be able to pivot in no time.

Five district schools had to briefly revert to full distance education when cases were detected among students and staff. School enrollment has been relatively low; only 2% of the 22,000 teachers and staff in the district have been infected, and the rate among students is well below that figure.

But Hinojosa fears that this bubble will burst during the holidays.

“We are a very blue city in a purple county in a red state. The governor wants all restaurants to be open, ”he said.

Detroit, which has around 50,000 students, has announced it will suspend in-person classes next week due to the city’s rising infection rate. The change affects around 10,000 students.

For some children, especially those from poor or dysfunctional families, schools are safer than being at home. Some fall behind with distance education only.

This is the case at Indio High School in the Southern California desert, principal Derrick Lawson said.

Most of the students come from poor homes and many have parents who are farm laborers, who work in the date palm and produce fields. Others have unemployed parents who worked in hotels and golf courses that are now closed. Several have lost family members to COVID-19, he said.

Cases and deaths have been on the rise since the summer in the county, where at least half of the residents are Hispanic. The trend will need to be reversed for schools to begin offering in-person education in January, as hoped, Lawson said.

“Because we’re virtual, I’m not worried about an outbreak” among students and staff, Lawson said. “My big worry is that we have so many children who are experiencing loss or who are discouraged.”

The school has established links with counselors, a suicide prevention group, relaxation techniques and other services.

“I have confused high school kids who look at their world and wonder what’s going on,” Lawson said.

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Follow AP Medical writer Lindsey Tanner at @LindseyTanner.

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Associated Press editors Cedar Attanasio in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Lori Hinnant in Paris; and Ed White in Detroit contributed to this story.

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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