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Is classroom teaching advisable during COVID-19? Response: Absolutely not.

A quiet Yale campus in New Haven during the school’s spring break in March. The school shifted classes online after the break to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Ryan Caron King, Connecticut Public Radio)

On July 17, Dr. Sten Vermund, Dean of the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH), published a piece outlining his support for in-person teaching this fall. That day, the CDC reported 72,045 new COVID-19 cases in the United States, bringing the total to 3,630,587. Less than two weeks later, that number rose by 16.3%, crossing the 4 million case mark. Against this backdrop, Vermund’s case for in-person teaching is misleading and potentially calamitous.

Vermund organizes his arguments into three categories: managing risk, avoiding risk, and meeting teaching responsibilities. Each fails to adequately consider published evidence and realities that contradict his approach. As newly minted alumni of YSPH, we feel compelled to call upon our training and respond.

Vermund lauds Yale’s risk management plans, which include maintaining six feet of distance between students, mandating face coverings, upgrading ventilation systems, implementing frequent testing and contact tracing, and requiring risk reduction education. He does not mention Yale’s flawed and arguably exploitative plan to manage undergraduate emergencies by deputizing graduate students as “Public Health Coordinators” (public health knowledge is not a prerequisite for the role). Nor does he contend with the weaknesses of the plans he lists.

Research shows that the 6-foot rule is insufficient in enclosed spaces like classrooms where COVID-19 can spread further due to complex air flow patterns. Furthermore, Yale’s updated testing and tracing protocols rely on the Yale Health staff who already provide full-time care for all university affiliates and their families. The protocols, as written, are vague. Details regarding responsibility for processing tests and supplying swabs are undisclosed, as are instructions for faculty, staff, and their families. It remains unclear whether this massive screening program will divert resources from the surrounding community.

And of course, Vermund speaks only about Yale’s preparedness. Many, if not most, schools do not have the resources to implement comparable plans. With a prodigious endowment and manageable undergraduate population, Yale represents a unique case. In one article awaiting peer review, another Yale faculty member describes the logistical, behavioral, and resource challenges associated with proper screening for students. These are challenges that other universities may not be able to address. The New York Times recently published data linking 6,300 cases of COVID-19 to universities, a worrying number considering most fall instruction has not yet begun.

Vermund calls on the federal government to help various educational institutions establish protections for their students and faculty. But he does not appreciate how difficult it would be for disparate institutions to meet identical standards. For example, K-12 schools do not have access to student health facilities and hospital systems as many universities do. Vermund also invokes the notion of “academic service” to describe teachers as essential workers, a troubling characterization for teacher safety: Vermund himself implies that essential workers do not have the freedom to “avoid risk when the risk cannot be managed.”

In the absence of federal protections, it is irresponsible to suggest instructors return on the basis of moral obligation. Teachers should not have to risk illness or death for their students. Forcing those with life threatening conditions back into the classroom unduly burdens an already undercompensated profession. Overcrowding, poor facilities, and teacher shortages are challenges faced daily in the public education system. Neither the Heroes Act nor the HEALS Act would allow for public schools to implement all of the suggested facilities changes in time for a fall reopening, even if the funding were made available tomorrow.

Discussions of academic service and responsibility must not ignore that universities often reside within a wider community. The influx of students returning to New Haven will increase exposure for everyone in the city without offering them the same testing and treatment services guaranteed to those affiliated with Yale. This is antithetical to the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement, a cause Vermund claims to support, as reopening will place thousands of Black and brown lives in the New Haven community at risk.

In response to criticism, Vermund tweeted that his comfort with classroom teaching was specific to high resource institutions. But his piece, written from a lofty platform and published in a non-Yale media outlet, does not always maintain that distinction. We fear that it will be used to justify short-sighted decisions that put students, teachers, and communities at extreme risk.

Both Yale College and YSPH have planned tuition increases. Meanwhile, colleges and universities in Connecticut, including Yale, have already begun seeking legal protection if students contract COVID-19. The former conveys a business-as-usual approach while the latter tacitly acknowledges the gravity of the pandemic. Those with the power to make consequential decisions should not get to have their cake and eat it too. Ultimately, Dr. Vermund’s optimistic treatment of in-person learning is at odds with the duties of public health policymakers and practitioners: to release guidelines and recommendations in favor of the public’s safety, above all else.

Christina Harden, MPH; Emma Allen, MPH; Adam J. Moore, MPH; and Hijab Khan, MPH. This op ed comes to you courtesy of CTMirror.org.

4 comments

Curious Voter August 1, 2020 at 1:18 pm

NPS stick with remote teaching! You would have to be the dumbest parent ever to send your child back to classrooms during a pandemic!! Someone needs to step up and stop this nonsense, there are too many unknowns about this virus to risk a child, their parents, grandparents or teachers life. What the hell are people in charge of this reckless decision thinking (they’re not thinking logically in my opinion). Our teachers are also in danger here. If they refuse to go back to the classroom, risking their and their families life, maybe this open the schools during a pandemic nonsense will stop!

Norwalk Spectator August 3, 2020 at 1:55 am

I have many, many questions about the numbers of COVID cases Dr. Vermund reported simply because there has been so many anecdotal stories about various individuals who have been informed that their tests came back positive when they were either not tested at all, or the tests were all positive, like the labs in Florida that were reporting 100% positive test results. Then, there is the recent report from Tricare about how more than 600,000 clients in the military health system’s East Region received emails recently asking them to consider donating blood for research as “survivors of COVID-19.” The only problem was that the recipients were not necessarily individuals who actually had COVID. So, now the U.S. has reportedly passed the 4 million mark for cases. But they haven’t defined what the term “cases” means. Are these individuals who have actually had symptoms with positive test results, individuals who have been exposed and yet are asymptomatic, individuals who have required hospitalization, or individuals who have died due to complications caused by COVID? There is an entire cohort of individuals who have been identified by COVID trackers yet refuse to be tested because they are asymptomatic. The individuals in this cohort are counted as having positive results. Certainly there is the possibility of having children in a classroom become asymptomatic carriers, but the actual risk factor is not readily available because of the undefined parameters of data sets and the various noted flaws in the data collection methods. The treatment protocols have also been rather scatter shot — mask on, mask off; use of hydroxychloroquine encouraged, hydroxychloroquine banned from use; large gatherings forbidden, large protests for certain causes allowed.
Of course one could argue that it is better to be safe than sorry, but there is also the added factor of social isolation
which has resulted in an increase in Suicide hotline calls. At what point will people accept the fact that the children MIGHT get COVID, just like they might get conjunctivitis or a cold. There are no guarantees in life — other than death and taxes.

Really August 3, 2020 at 8:55 pm

Curious Voter, I agree that the stats are most likely skewed. There definitely appears to be a political agenda surrounding COVID. You have one group on people arguing that the numbers are high and it is dangerous for most people, and another group stating that the numbers are grossly exaggerated, and the virus will only affect older individuals, or people with compromised immune systems. I have the sinking feeling that this will fizzle out after the election. But who knows?

What I am hearing from MOST people, including politicians from both sides of the table, is that school aged children should be fine, so send them to school!

What almost no one is mentioning is that a school building is not Lord of the Flies. There are MANY teachers and personnel in the building, cooped up with over 20-30 students per small classroom, with recycled air pushed around each room. If they do have windows in their rooms, they are most likely those safety ones that barely open inward. I am unsure why teachers are expendable, but they are rarely mentioned. Most teacher survey results stated that around 80 percent of teachers wanted to begin school with an alternating hybrid roster schedule (or remotely), seeing half of the students each day, to see how that goes. I don’t think that was asking for much.

That appears to not be in the cards unless the numbers go up. Meanwhile, the people making these decisions (Initially Lamont, and now local districts that want to grovel to the state so they can get funding for frivolous new programs) continue to work from home or in an environment that is not anywhere close to that of a school teacher.

Baseball and other sports continue to have no fans, concerts are cancelled, but teachers need to go in and possibly die? For what? To babysit everyone’s kids, while many parents continue to sit safely at home and order everything that their little hearts have ever desired on Amazon? Their job is to educate children. That technically can mean remotely during a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. It does not mean to babysit. So teachers get to be the test subjects for the rest of the working world, even though they aren’t medical professionals? Why? I have many family members who are teachers, and am worried sick about them. I guess we’ll see what will happen shortly.

No man [or woman] is an island. August 6, 2020 at 7:07 am

TO NORWALK SPECTATOR:

At what point will people stop politicizing a health issue and accept the truth that COVID can result in death or can be transmitted, yes, by a child, and result in the death of someone else. It should not be compared to conjunctivitis or a cold. Some things are opinions and some are facts. We teach that in school, we learned it in school, so apply it in life. Look someone in the eye who had a family member die of Covid, I have been to one heart wrenching Zoom funeral, and tell them it was no different than a cold or conjunctivitis. I am praying for our community, and by community, I mean the world.

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