Analysis: An accidental lesson on public health and politics in a pandemic
Texas government is going in two directions at once, with Gov. Greg Abbott blowing a whistle on rising COVID-19 numbers while top education officials detail plans to open public schools for in-person classes this fall.
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As COVID-19 cases rise in Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott voices rising concern about the seriousness of the pandemic, state leaders are detailing another phase of extensive reopenings.
Abbott met news of rising coronavirus alarms with some positive spin at the beginning of last week: “The bottom line is this, and that is the increased capacity of hospital beds, it does raise concerns, but as shown today, there is no reason to be alarmed.”
Later in the week, the governor told lawmakers that schools will open in the fall. He left the details to the Texas Education Agency.
At the beginning of this week, Abbott changed the key from major to minor at a sobering Monday news conference. His tone was glum: “To state the obvious, COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas, and it must be corralled.”
On Monday, Abbott offered four coronavirus admonitions: If you’re at risk, stay home; wash your hands; wear a mask; and keep your distance from others. He also talked about ominous changes in the number of COVID-19 cases, in hospitalizations and in the ratio of confirmed cases to tests.
“There’s been pretty much a doubling of the numbers in those three categories,” he said. “If we were to experience another doubling of those numbers over the next month, that would mean we are in an urgent situation where tougher actions will be required.”
The very next day, the state’s light-handed approach to opening the schools came to light, as reported by The Texas Tribune’s Aliyya Swaby.
Schools will have to offer in-person classes, but they’ll get paid the same amount for students who attend in person or online, according to drafts of the state policy posted on the TEA’s website. The drafted health guidelines are only that — not rules. And they are just like the governor’s recommendations: cover your face, wash your hands, keep your distance.
The timing is jarring. The COVID-19 statistics of most concern to the state’s top leaders are rising — enough that they would hint at the idea of new social distancing restrictions. And in the context of a worsening epidemic, opening the schools seems off key.
It’s the equivalent of another big phase of reopening the businesses and institutions Texas shut down to curb the coronavirus outbreak in March. Texas has about 5.5 million public school students. They’ll be gathering in the buildings they left last spring, along with their teachers and the support staff — administrators, cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers and the rest — in less than three months.
Many of their parents, who’ve been home in part because they were watching their unschooled kids, will be able to go back to work.
In social terms, opening the schools could set loose a lot of people who were sent home for their own safety last spring.
Perhaps by then the risk will be smaller than it is now. Getting 20 or 30 rambunctious kids to make hand-washing a habit sounds like a challenge, but teachers have mad skills when presented with problems like that.
Keeping distance might be easier but means fewer kids in each room and — probably — longer days for educators who’ll be teaching larger numbers of smaller classes to keep up. And that’s before we even talk about virtual classes for the students who cannot or will not spend their time in school buildings during the pandemic. Some superintendents are already saying that will be an option.
Masks are essential equipment these days, and tools for mischief. There’s a reason Mrs. Brooks wouldn’t let us wear our Halloween masks in class all those years ago: too much room for misdemeanors. Reading faces is a teacher superpower; masks raise the level of difficulty. All of those obstacles are surmountable, and if the risks are acceptable and the schools are judged to be safe, educators and parents will be itching to give it a go.
But that “if” hangs in the air. The announcement of a return to classes landed right in step with Abbott’s acknowledgement that the risks of the pandemic are rising.
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