Guest columnist Jeff Napolitano: Students deserve COVID-free schools – GazetteNET

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Rules requiring teachers to wear face masks in schools helped slow transmission of the coronavirus, a new study examining German schools finds. Dreamstime/TNS
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The nature of the fall return to school is one of hope — that this will be a better year than last, particularly during the pandemic. But with all the recent crises we’re experiencing comes a number of “new normals.”
The most disturbing new normal, however, has been the abandonment of the most basic protections against COVID-19 that were front of mind just months ago. Historians have pointed out, during the flu pandemic of 1919, the deadliest period was after people let their guards down, after the initial wave of illness, because of a desire to get back to normal. Needless to say, we’re seeing history repeating itself in real time, and most troubling, right in our children’s schools.
While COVID-19 vaccines have greatly reduced the threat of death, they do not significantly reduce the chance of infection, as many vaccinated folks who are on their second or third infection are painfully aware. Politicians and businesses have used the introduction of vaccines to downplay the risks from infection, which we learn more and more about every week. While COVID-19 minimizers used to claim that children were immune or unharmed by infections, we now know that children can indeed contract, transmit, and become very sick.
As surges and variants continue to emerge, we’re only beginning to understand the consequences of infections, even those considered mild or asymptomatic:
■Increased risk to children of developing diabetes.
■Increase in heart failure, heart disease, and other cardiac disorders.
■Vascular problems, to the extent that some scientists have deemed it primarily a vascular, not respiratory, disease.
Damage to the physical structure of the brain, and children specifically had “increased risk of cognitive deficit, insomnia, intracranial hemorrhage, ischaemic stroke, nerve, nerve root, and plexus disorders, psychotic disorders, and epilepsy or seizures.”
These consequences of infection are so numerous and so significant that the chief scientist of the World Health Organization, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, recently declared on Twitter, “We need to prepare for large increases in cardiovascular, neurological & mental health disorders in countries affected by [COVID].”
The prevalence of long-COVID looms larger than the chances of death, especially for kids, who presumably have a longer life ahead and greater chance to develop it. Estimates vary, but between 8% and 24% of those infected develop long-COVID. A week ago, the Brookings Institute estimated that 16 million Americans between 18 and 65 were out with persistent symptoms, and that up to 4 million of these workers reduced or could not work at all because of those symptoms. Those numbers indicate that a third of unfilled jobs in the U.S. are due to COVID-19 infections. Adults in the workforce certainly need protections from infection, but our children should be an even higher priority.
As of Sept 5th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own numbers for community transmission of COVID-19 (which is surely a vast undercount, as uncounted rapid antigen tests have become the primary means of testing), list 95% of counties in the U.S. as having “high” or “substantial” rates of transmission of the virus. That includes Hampshire County, with nearly 8,800 cases in the last seven days and a test positivity rate of 8-9.9%. Under guidelines before this past February, universal indoor masking in the community would have been recommended.
Furthermore, last weekend we are saw tens of thousands of college students — from all over the country and world — converge in Hampshire County. UMass Amherst has eliminated surveillance testing and mask mandates, only has rapid test kits “while supplies last,” and now charges $25 for the more reliable PCR test. Students are returning to campus without having to demonstrate evidence of a negative COVID-19 test, and if you are dumb enough to admit you have a positive infection, you have to find your own housing for five days (or isolate with your roommate/suitemates). We likely won’t know how much disease comes from eliminating public health protections, because we’ve given up on regular testing, including within our kids’ schools.
Two years ago, we shut down K-12 schools based upon the precautionary principle — the idea that we shouldn’t expose our children, or at least minimize their exposure, because we were unsure of the consequences of transmission. Now, when we are just beginning to understand the dangers of infection, and after nearly 200,000 people have died of COVID-19 so far in 2022 alone, we are sending children back into schools — with no masks, no required vaccines, and we don’t even bother to regularly test for the presence of the virus. We have turned the precautionary principle on its head.
Opponents of commonsense precautions may cite “learning loss” and developmental effects, but the greatest irony in eliminating protections is that if we wanted kids to reliably stay in school, we’d provide them with respirator masks (KN94/N95s). Dr. Ellie McMurray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, published a study that demonstrated that schools which removed mask mandates had significantly higher cases among staff and students (duh) than schools that didn’t. Dropping commonsense precautions means more students miss school in the short term and face potential long-term health problems. It just doesn’t make sense!
The arguments against putting a wafer-thin, breathable barrier over one’s mouth have endangered lives. One particular lie I’ve read in this paper and heard on the radio is that masks inhibit development in learning, despite research psychologists, speech therapists and pediatricians finding zero evidence of this. Finally, last week the American Academy of Pediatrics was compelled to push back against such damaging claims, pointing out that “even visually impaired children develop speech and language at the same rate as their peers.”
We have to get back to common-sense protections in our public schools, particularly while our government isn’t seriously trying to mitigate COVID-19 transmission. Those protections should strive to minimize, not facilitate, the number of infections in a child’s lifetime. If we can’t do it in all public indoor spaces, couldn’t we at least make an effort to protect our children, whose attendance in school is compulsory? We owe them a fighting chance for a healthy future.
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