As Death Rates Soar Teachers Speak Out on Unsafe School Reopenings

Two Indianapolis public school teachers question officials’ claims that schools are not a vector of Covid-19 transmission as the district sends students and staff back to buildings.
  • Left Voice | 
  • January 28, 2021
Photo: Jim West

We are two Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) teachers who returned to our reopened school this week. IPS halted in-person classes shortly before Thanksgiving because new Covid-19 cases skyrocketed to nearly 800 per day in Marion County which has just under one million residents. IPS teachers went back on the same day that Chicago teachers successfully resisted reopening during the uncontrolled pandemic by voting 71 percent in favor of striking if ordered to return.

Although our district brought high school, middle school, and 4th and 5th grade elementary school students and staff back to their school buildings this week, Kindergarten through 3rd grade students returned on January 19. According to the New York Times, that was the same day that the United States passed 400,000 deaths from the pandemic. Yet our school district is telling staff, students, and parents that hundreds of people gathering for classes and moving around inside school buildings is safe.

Teachers and students’ families were notified of the school administration’s decision to begin reopening our schools via a late-night email and online announcement January 11. The previous week, there had been on average 750 new cases per day in our county.

If school closures are a necessary evil during widespread Covid transmission, then there is simply no way to argue that reopening is now safe. While infections and deaths across the United States remain very high, authorities are conveniently claiming that schools do not contribute significantly to transmission chains. 

Less than two weeks after the decision to reopen schools in Indianapolis, Joe Biden held a press conference saying, “The virus is surging. We’re 400,000 dead expected to reach well over 600,000 … There’s nothing we can do to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the next several months.”

President Biden’s statement is horrifically cynical. Many other countries, including China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Australia, have controlled the spread of Covid-19 and have death rates far below U.S. levels. There are many measures that could halt the spread of the virus, such as paying all workers over the age of 60 to stay home, guaranteeing housing, food, and medical care to people who cannot afford them, and shutting down indoor spaces such as restaurants, which Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor Linsey Marr has called “one of the riskiest things you can do in a pandemic.”

Going back to in-person school means large numbers of students and adults in close proximity in cafeterias, buses, and classrooms — even though high school and middle school students are only attending in person two days per week as opposed to five days per week for elementary school students. There is an immense push by many officials and even many doctors to assure the public that the coronavirus is not frequently transmitted at school and then passed on to family members and other contacts, fueling community spread. However, the evidence to support these claims  is very limited: It does not apply to children over 13, and depends on community spread already being low.  And, as the journal Nature mentioned, almost as an aside,, “Evidence gleaned from national Covid-19 statistics also has shortcomings. In the United States, for example, asymptomatic infections are still being missed because of policies that only people who develop symptoms are tested.”

In fact we are being told to reopen schools by the same politicians who are responsible for the immense scale of the pandemic, who oppose healthcare as a right, and who have continuously failed to provide testing at the levels needed to successfully combat Covid.

Authorities are Lying about the Science

On January 20, the IPS district HR department emailed a letter from Virginia Caine, the head of the Marion County Public Health Department, to all public school employees, arguing for reopening schools. Caine told teachers that we need to consider the social value of schools, including feeding children in poverty, creating a community “social network,” and “freeing up parents to work.” She then asserted — the day after the United States exceeded 400,000 Covid-19 deaths — that, “Schools should only close when the risks from keeping them open are substantial.”

The Health Department attached a document to this letter arguing that children are unlikely to contract or get seriously sick from Covid, and do not appear to drive virus transmission. Teachers were then assured, “In-person, remote or hybrid schooling have no significant impact on community rates.”

There are many problems with these claims. First, there are huge numbers of undetected Covid infections from people who do not get tested and/or are asymptomatic. Although authorities insist that few people catch the virus inside schools and get seriously sick or transmit the virus, these many undetected cases mean that they do not have evidence to support this.

Furthermore, although our county health department tells us that the “CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], American Academics of Pediatrics and National Academies of Science and Engineering and Medicine recommend in-person schooling,” and asserts that, “Covid-19 poses low risks to school-aged children – at least in areas with low community transmission,” central Indiana does not have low community transmission. Few areas of the United States do, and Covid can easily travel between U.S. regions. Finally, our local authorities willfully misrepresent much of what the CDC has said about the pandemic. In December, the CDC said, “children can be infected with the virus that causes Covid-19, can get sick from Covid-19, and can spread the virus that causes Covid-19 to others. Children, like adults, who have Covid-19 but have no symptoms (“asymptomatic”) can still spread the virus to others.”
Our county health director also cites a study which reported that the rate of Covid infection of students and teachers in the Chicago Catholic school system was lower than the infection rate for the city population as a whole in the same time period. But this study was produced by the Chicago Department of Public Health which publicly supports the Chicago Public Schools administration’s demand for reopening.One of the study’s authors even said in a press conference, “I hope that this publication helps physicians and the city’s schools … have increased confidence that an option to return to school is the right thing to do.”

Even beyond this blatant bias, applying this study to a public school system like IPS is wholly inappropriate. The Chicago Catholic school system has just 20,000 students, many of whose parents have office jobs and can work from home. This is in stark contrast to many parents of public school children who often work low-paid service, transportation, and industrial jobs in close contact with others. The study even acknowledges that many Catholic high schools were closed during the period examined. The fact that the population of Catholic schools benefits from preventive reduction in transmission due to lockdowns of other schools and workplaces is ignored.

Our School

In our small school, five staff members tested positive for Covid during winter break, and there were at least two prior staff cases. This means that at least 20 percent of our staff has been infected. Regardless of whether they got the virus at school or elsewhere, the fact is that with rampant transmission and low testing rates, there is every reason to expect that infected people will come to school and be in close proximity to others without knowing they are infected. Multiple students have tested positive as well, but our students are much less likely to be tested.

When our school was open in the fall, many students were sent home with possible Covid symptoms. No contact tracing was done for these students if they did not report receiving a positive Covid test to the school, but testing is not mandatory, easily available, or facilitated by the schools. If the student did not get tested, no classmates or teachers quarantined, and the potential case was not included in any of the school’s Covid reporting. If we wanted accurate data and reliable contract tracing, rapid tests would be available in schools.

IPS has not given teachers over the age of 60 the right to work from home despite the obvious health risks. People with chronic health conditions or those who are caring for vulnerable family members must request special permission to work from home in an individual process with no transparency.

The IPS website reminds students in a single line, buried below paragraphs and charts of “Back to School” information, that they still have the option of fully online learning, but they are required to call their school office directly to opt in. Students are actively dissuaded from choosing this option, and if they choose online learning anyway, they are not allowed to opt back into in-person learning at any time during the rest of the year, regardless of the state of the pandemic or increased vaccination. They are warned that they will lose bussing for the rest of the year if they opt in to online learning.

Inside the school building, the district is undermining social distancing. IPS tells us that adults inside the schools must stay at least six feet apart (which individuals do not always follow). But written guidelines now say that students can be just 3 to 6 feet from each other and that, “teachers will get closer to students if necessary.”There are no temperature checks, a basic precaution that has been in place in workplaces since the spring Instead, this responsibility is supposed to fall on parents every morning before their child goes to school.

In the fall, IPS told staff and families that the pandemic situation was “green” if the county positivity rate was below 5 percent, “yellow” for a rate of 5 to 11 percent, “orange” for a rate of 11 to 13 percent, and “red” if over 13 percent, and promised increasing levels of district-wide shutdown for each level above green. Under the new reopening plan, local authorities say that each school should be managed individually. But now, the idea of closing schools as a place of public gathering based on city-wide transmission levels has been scrapped: schools will only be considered at dangerous levels if their student and staff positive tests reach 75 percent or even 100 percent of the county’s rate at the same time. And even if individual schools — rather than the district as a whole — rises to “red” under their new evaluation system, the health department does not promise to close schools but only to “work with school community to decrease incidence.”

National and local decisions to open schools are being controlled by high level bosses. They are going as far as ordering us to ignore the health risks by broadcasting misleading scientific claims. It is clear that these administrators simply do not care about the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of continuing deaths. They are more concerned with having childcare that “frees up parents to work” because they really serve business owners.

Unfortunately, our official union bodies, the Indianapolis Educators’ Association local and the state-level ISTA have been passive and largely absent throughout the pandemic and are doing nothing to organize rank-and-file teachers. Within our school, none of the teachers participate regularly in union meetings. We have a building union representative who was selected to fill this position when it was vacant without any election or discussion by the actual teachers. Our local and state union leaders have done nothing to question the policy of forcing older workers and people caring for immunocompromised family members to work in dangerous conditions. Recently, the ISTA shared the first union initiative we have heard about during this pandemic, and it was merely a petition collecting employees’ names to request the state government to raise the priority of educators in line for vaccination. 

We should be having actual meetings (virtually!), not passively requesting things from a state government that has never even tried to do what is necessary to combat the pandemic. The whole structure of our union encourages teachers to be passive, isolated, and accept the many harmful decisions of our bureaucratic school system. We desperately need a real scientific approach to Covid that puts lives before profits and takes the risks of in-person schooling seriously. We also need a democratic and active union that builds the power of school workers to demand that safety measures are in place.

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