Empty Class Building

The hallway at Coweta’s Central Elementary remains dark and empty as students left classrooms early in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. CHRISTY WHEELAND/AMERICAN-TRIBUNE

There is a great difference between knowing about something and experiencing it firsthand. For example, you might understand that cancer is a threat to human life, but until you have been diagnosed with the disease, start chemotherapy and begin pondering how many days on Earth you may have left, you do not truly understand cancer. Without firsthand experience, cancer remains a vague concept.

In Oklahoma a few months ago, COVID-19 seemed like so much noise. A few people contracted the virus, and even fewer people seemed to be dying from it.

Although I understood that almost 150,000 Americans had been killed by COVID-19, the virus did not seem relevant to me until a friend of mine threw a pool party for his young daughter and her friends. One of the friends transmitted the disease to the daughter and from the daughter, the virus traveled to dad, mom and grandma. Grandma died, dad had to be hospitalized, and mom and daughter suffered, but recovered relatively quickly.

Oklahoma’s COVID-19 cases are on the rise. At a minimum, at least 25,000 of us are infected; about 500 have died already. Daily cases in Oklahoma have increased tenfold since May. After reading that a 13-year-old student from Lawton died of COVID-19 last week, I learned that about 2,000 children in daycare centers in Texas recently had been diagnosed with the virus.

While children are less likely than adults to die from COVID-19, they can become extremely sick and can spread the disease, even if they have no symptoms. The long-term effects on children from carrying residuals of the disease in their systems is still unknown.

Despite the recent spike in infections, the state Board of Education refused Thursday to require schools to follow any safety measures whatsoever.

This inaction means that many schools, particularly those that may struggle financially, may be starting the school year with absolutely no modifications — no social distancing, no required masks, no extra precautions. This is bad news for everyone, but especially for students and teachers.

If we know anything about COVID-19, it is that it spreads easily and rapidly. In New York City, since schools were shut down in March, 79 teachers and staff have died due to COVID-19. According to an article from the July 14 edition of The Wall Street Journal, after schools in Israel reopened in May, at least 1,335 students and 691 staff have been infected. At a correctional institute in Ohio, one infected individual spread the disease to 80% of inmates and to more than 160 guards, nurses and staff.

Why would the reopening of public schools in Oklahoma result in outcomes any different from these? When teachers start going down with COVID-19, will the school district pay for their hospitalization? Who is going to volunteer to take over the teacher’s classroom after the previous teacher has been hospitalized? How many students and teachers must die before a school decides to take preventative measures to ensure their health?

If schools reopen, the American Federation of Teachers suggests that schools enforce, at a minimum, “six-feet social distancing, masks, deep cleaning and handwashing stations.” Dr. Jared Baetenn, an expert in public health notes, “The equation for major prevention of this virus is really pretty simple: it’s masks, and avoid congregating indoors.”

Two recent medical studies have asserted that wearing masks could save the lives of tens of thousands of people this fall. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, “Everyone should wear a cloth face cover in public settings.”

As several vaccines are being developed and rushed into production, the COVID-19 plague may be a temporary anomaly. No one likes wearing masks, but if throwing a piece of cloth over the mouth and nose when inside a building can save the lives of students and teachers, why is there even a debate? If only 1% of the students and teachers in Oklahoma schools get infected and die, that would translate into 7,400 unnecessary deaths.

Lawrence Baines is a professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education.

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