Aimee Stephenson: COVID-19 and reopening Vermont’s schools

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Aimee Stephenson, of Burlington. She has a doctorate in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from the University of Vermont.

In a recent communication from a Vermont superintendent to the school community, the superintendent describes the challenges districts are facing to reopen their schools in the fall.

School districts across the state all have published plans that they cannot guarantee they can staff, and even if by some miracle one can, it is highly unlikely they will be able to sustain it. Childcare for all families AND school employees is a huge problem that crosses many district geographical boundaries. This is a significant statewide problem in need of a significant statewide solution made by those that have the authority to do so, at the top of the food chain, not individual community administrators and local school boards.

While I can completely understand it is human nature to want someone else to take the reins when you are facing such onerous demands, this is a completely astonishing about-face in a state where local control has dominated the K-12 public school system since inception. The answer here does not lie in turning to big government to create a top-down, one size-fits-all “solution.” You’d think if there was one lesson from the last several months it would be the delusion and destruction of this approach.

Aimee Stephenson

Aimee Stephenson

No, we do not need the government telling us what we can and can’t do anymore and micromanaging every aspect of our lives down to our very next breath. Rather, what we desperately need is for our school leaders to step off the hamster wheel, catch their breaths, and do what they do best. Instead of taking on the herculean task of remodeling our schools over the next five weeks in what will no doubt result in an epic fail for all, Vermonters need to seize local control, bolster courage in their superintendents, and demand our schools reopen to a normal school experience. (I wonder if 20 V.S.A. § 13 is a way for cities and towns to terminate the Governor’s state of emergency orders…at least locally? It might be worth looking into.)

Not only is there good evidence for a return to normal in schools, but on the flip side of the equation, no one has sufficient evidence as to the efficacy of the guidelines the CDC and government are trying to force schools to adhere to. We need to stop conducting this grand and pointless experiment to the detriment of our children. The unintended and harmful impacts of large-scale implementation of non-pharmaceutical measures such as overly sanitized environments, social distancing, and cloth face masks are entirely unknown at this point not to speak of the undue burden of implementing these intrusive measures in school settings.

In addition to the insurmountable logistics of reopening under the current guidelines, schools are being asked to take responsibility for the health of students, families, and their employees. While schools tend to be relatively safe places, it is absurd and unreasonable to ask them to guarantee health and safety. Life is a series of risks and probabilities that schools and central planning cannot mitigate to the point of absolute safety.

More children die every year from accidents suffered from youth sports than have died of COVID-19. Should we ban youth sports? Obviously not, but we also shouldn’t prevent children from enjoying a normal school experience when data from the pandemic clearly demonstrate they are the least at risk, if at all, of suffering detrimental effects from COVID and are also unlikely to pass SARS-CoV-2 on to adults. We need to stop letting fear dictate the reopening of schools. There is too much at stake, both in terms of ample evidence that keeping children at home creates myriad negative impacts, but also the workforce and childcare issues that are not being considered in equal measure.

I would further argue that letting students return to school under normal conditions is important for developing herd immunity to protect vulnerable populations from COVID-19. Natural herd immunity is how humans have survived viruses up to this point. Vaccines are only relatively new advances. The thought that we have to wait for a vaccine to establish herd immunity before we can safely send children to school is an absurd idea born from fear and our human arrogance that we can dominate the natural world by declaring “war” on a virus.

And as far as viruses go, this one turns out to be not so novel. Two recent, independent studies on T cell immunity both revealed surprise findings in their control groups. For those not experienced with scientific studies, suffice it to say the “control group” is typically the negative result you are contrasting with your positive result. In both studies, researchers found T cells reactive to SARS-CoV-2 in 30% and 50% of the control groups, which came from individuals with no history of SARS, COVID-19 or contact with SARS/COVID-19 patients.

You might ask, how then do these individuals have T cells reactive to SARS-CoV-2? The obvious implication is exposure to seasonal common cold coronaviruses confers some degree of cross-reactivity to SARS-CoV-2. We also know from the CDC and other sources that 40% of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, meaning the individual never develops symptoms or gets sick. This is actually good news. To extrapolate, if 30-50% of the population possibly have immunity vis-à-vis T cells, then it would make sense that 40% never get sick from the virus. The common-sense view is that exposure to things that are similar, such as common cold viruses, provides some degree of protection against COVID-19.

It is ridiculous the national media has turned to reporting soaring case numbers without putting these data in the proper context of increased testing, 40% asymptomatic cases, and an overall decrease in deaths (yes, still decreasing) in the same time period. Never have we conducted such widespread testing on healthy, asymptomatic adults as we have with current contact tracing efforts. Could we simply be discovering our coexistence with viruses is more pervasive than originally thought?

In any other scenario, if a subset of the population was exposed to the virus but never got sick, we would herald their immunity instead of demonizing them as thoughtless and dangerous vectors of disease. To put COVID-19 deaths in perspective, a recent Johns Hopkins study cites more than 250,000 people in the U.S. die every year from medical errors. Clearly, going to the doctor is risky business but we don’t declare “war” on doctors, lockdown the population, and destroy our economy in response.

Where did this idea come from that governments and schools are responsible for ameliorating all risk for all people with regard to COVID-19? Getting in our cars every day carries a risk, but it is a choice we make because the tradeoffs are worth it. We don’t ask government to outlaw cars because there is a risk of dying in car accidents. Everyone should have the right to balance risks and benefits in relation to their own quality of life.

The flu is clearly a dangerous virus, but the reason we don’t see more deaths every year from flu, or pandemics like in 1918 for that matter, is because of herd immunity. I would argue it is paramount for the young and healthy to acquire COVID-19 immunity. To be clear, when advocating for herd immunity I am not suggesting we let the pandemic rip. Rather, we should continue to shield those most at risk through continued social distancing and isolation while allowing younger individuals without underlying health conditions to create their own personal roadblock to the virus. Not only will their immunity improve, but they will be an important link in the chain of protection for the vulnerable in our communities.

To summarize, we know there is some baseline immunity in the population. We know the majority of COVID-19 deaths are in older people and 93% of all COVID-19 deaths are in people with, on average, 2.5 chronic health conditions – very sick people. We know SARS-CoV-2 is not a threat to those under 50 who are healthy, especially children. Most importantly, 99.7% of all people who get COVID actually recover. You don’t hear that statistic in the news, do you?

Vermonters need to stop pandering to the self-serving interests of government and an irresponsible media whose stories of tragic one-off cases and gross misrepresentation of statistics is only feeding their insatiable 24-hour news cycle while whipping people into an irrational state of fear and mass hysteria. Fear-based decisions are bad decisions that don’t serve anyone.

Schools are not furthering their missions by catering to the irrational fears of media’s devout converts who use bullying tactics to say you are trying to murder their grandmother if you don’t agree with them. This collective sense of contamination and sin is both highly puritanical and misguided. I feel I am living in some sort of dystopian McCarthyism nightmare, but lest not forget that prior to March 18th at least, we lived in America where individuals were free to choose.

For those Vermonters with children who are not well or who want to hide at home until there is a vaccine, your clear school choice is the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC), an entirely remote instruction option for grades 6-12 that is now a partner with all K-12 public schools. And for teachers who do not wish to return to the physical classroom, VTVLC is looking for teachers too! But please allow the rest of us to make the choice to return to normal life.

Some European countries never closed their schools and didn’t suffer detrimental impacts. For children and schools, the less invasive and effective strategies of washing hands, covering coughs/sneezes, and staying home when you are sick make much more sense. If anything, schools should be looking at strategies for relieving the pressure students feel to be in school when sick, whether it be due to the fear of falling behind or a parent who cannot miss work because they need to stay home with a sick child. What can we do for students and parents who find themselves in these predicaments?

Images courtesy of Public domain and Aimee Stephenson
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27 thoughts on “Aimee Stephenson: COVID-19 and reopening Vermont’s schools

  1. Rep. Biggs: It’s time for Fauci and Birx to ‘exit left stage’
    by Andrew Mark Miller, Social Media Producer | August 08, 2020 11:35 AM

    Rep. Andy Biggs, a Republican, is calling for the firing of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx from the White House coronavirus response team.
    “Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx have cased more damage to this nation with their COVID-19 prescriptions than can ever be restored,” Biggs tweeted along with an opinion article he wrote in Townhall headlined “Time For Fauci (and Birx) to Exit Left Stage.”
    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/rep-biggs-its-time-for-fauci-and-birx-to-exit-left-stage

  2. As much as this will upset some readers, I am opposed to reopening the schools, but not based on any hyped medical reasons. We’ve seen evidence within the pages of TNR what is on the agenda for Vermont public schools, and we have seen what is being produced nationwide. I can also vouch for having seen an event announcement on Facebook which touted a seminar given by the Green Mountain John Brown Gun Club (armed Antifa) at Woodstock’s High School…DURING SCHOOL HOURS AND AT THE INVITATION OF THE SCHOOL! Since public schools are now a hotbed for Marxist indoctrination, all funding to them needs to cease and citizens must either homeschool or pick a real educator to teach their children. This is the only way to stop the insurgency. #DefundPublicSchools! #NoCompromise!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Aimee! We need a thousand more level-headed, commonsense Vermonters like you who speak up against this insanity! Every day on my local Front Porch Forum, I see calls for keeping the schools closed indefinitely. In fact, aside from the health and economic benefits, I think by fully reopening the schools and colleges, and putting students and teachers back to work, we will get at least two-thirds of protesters off the streets and restore some order.

    You are 100% correct in that if we let government legislate every last piece of our lives, we are asking for a government that will get more and more totalitarian in nature. And both the CDC and the American Association of Pediatrics agree that kids aren’t in danger from COVID-19 and that we need to get them back to school.

  4. The educational opportunities created by the pandemic cannot be exaggerated.

    But the beneficiaries of this trend at this point appear mostly limited to a handful of so-called “tuitioning” districts in southern Vermont resort communities, which, instead of operating schools, provide vouchers to families to send their children to the public or private school of their choice.

    https://vtdigger.org/2020/08/04/the-pandemic-is-bringing-students-to-vermont-mostly-in-towns-without-schools-%ef%bb%bf/

    Vermont’s School Choice education marketplace is about to blossom. This, in addition to the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC) is the opportunity School Choice advocates have been waiting for.

  5. You have to remember that teachers predominantly lean to the left. Democrats and progressives want the government to control and tell them what to do. Taking local control is an uphill battle when school boards are comprised of citizens who don’t have experience in directing a multi million dollar corporation, which our schools are. Rather easy for a superintendent to lead the board around by the nose.

    • A word about ‘local control’ from a former school board director: Unless and until parents can direct their children to the education program they believe best meet the needs of those children, there is no ‘local control’. Local school boards are every bit as prone to ‘taking control’ as is the State Board of Education. Local boards are replete with conflicts of interest. Annual school meetings are mob ruled. But I digress.

      As I’ve mentioned below – the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC) is a step in the right direction. The potential for flexibility and benefits afforded to parents and teachers cannot be over-emphasized. It’s impossible to list all of the benefits of a VTVLC model because they are, ‘virtually’, infinite.

  6. It’s not about the disease, Covid-19. It’s about controlling the population, wrecking the world economy to set the stage for “the Great Rest” (one world government), ensuring that Joe Biden doesn’t have to debate Trump, and distracting attention from the top-level pedophile ring that involved many powerful people who were associated with Jeffrey Epstein. All this is, of course, conspiracy theory.

    • There is no question that anyone believing there has been no mal intent by various governmental agencies, foreign and domestic, to take advantage of (even create) this pandemic is naive to the extreme. But tin-foil hats aside, the VTVLC is one major unintended consequence the ‘establishment’ didn’t consider. The parental choice inherent in virtual learning (in combination with all sorts of other education alternatives) is the education opportunity of a lifetime. All we have to do is get in on the ground floor.

      • Remote learning has been an absolute disaster in the experience of my circle. Kids spend hours on their ipads– which the school lends them– and then parents get notes saying they haven’t done their work. What do you suppose kids are going to do if they have access to the internet? Homework? Kids should be interacting with other kids, using books, pencils, and paper, and learning to pay attention to the teacher in a classroom setting.

        Sweden didn’t close schools. Children there aren’t dropping like flies. The world has gone crazy.

        • Thank you for your input. I hope to hear more.

          There is nothing in the tenants of virtual learning restricting children from doing homework, interacting with other kids (physically), using books (they have greater access to them online), pencils, paper… or paying attention to an adult.

          For every remote learning disaster you can mention, I can mention a success. Check out the Compass School in Westminster or the River Valley Tech Center in Springfield (I’m a former school board director).

          The question I have for you is, who managed the remote learning program in your circle? Did you have any choice or input in the program?

          Don’t fall into the one-size-fits-all mindset promulgated by the public education monopoly. Virtual learning doesn’t mean being irresponsible. It means anything ‘you’ want it to mean.

          “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men (adults) dread it.” GBS

        • Completely agree with you, Jim! My teenage son and most of his classmates were extremely unhappy about not being able to learn together and communicate face to face. A Zoom meeting is no substitute for an in-person interactive classroom setting. And we also need to think of the parents who need to get back to work to make a living. We have to get our kids back to school, now.

          • Experience from family members with zoom learning has been overwhelmingly negative. Maybe the teachers like it (they don’t have to manage all the kids, I can understand that!), maybe the administrators like it, and yes, maybe some parents like it. Children should be interacting with each other in person, not mediated by a screen.

            If virtual learning is part of the classroom experience, then that’s what it’s been previously, as I understand it. All for the educational experiences that can be found on-line. But, this is no substitute for hands-on, face-to-face learning.

          • Again, there’s nothing about online learning that prevents children from learning together and communicating face to face.

            But OK. A zoom meeting doesn’t work for you and your kids… under any circumstance. That’s another reason School Choice is so important. You shouldn’t have to do what I think is best. And everyone else shouldn’t have to do what you think is best either.

            Keep in mind, though, Zoom and other internet based communication is what your kids are going to experience when they move on and one day enter the workforce, whether they’re going to be butchers, bakers or candlestick makers.

            And there’s nothing about online learning that says a parent has to stay home all day. It’s time to think outside the box. But if you don’t want to, well that’s your choice.

  7. Most importantly, 99.7% of all people who get COVID actually recover. You don’t hear that statistic in the news, do you?

    There is a reason why this is not posted on every new organization across the globe, it’s not about science.

    • Don’t get lost in the pandemic weeds, Neil. Whatever the data is on the Covid virus, focus on the alternate education ‘concept’ offered by the VTVLC. It’s our opportunity to create universal School Choice. Yes, as soon as the VT AOE recognizes the camel’s nose under the tent flap, it will likely increase its efforts to control the curriculum and, more importantly, the funding. But virtual learning in conjunction with home schooling and private schools is our best escape from the current public-school monopoly. Run with it.

  8. To teach a course through the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative I would need an online teaching endorsement, available by earning 10 more graduate credits through Castleton. My master’s degree, subject area endorsement, and the experience I gained last spring with remote teaching would not be enough. Are you kidding me?

    • Yes. VTVLC is a one-size-fits-all virtual education experience funded and regulated by the VT Agency of Education. While the VTVLC regulations are surely designed to control the education curriculum (and, more to its interest, the funding), the concept is just what we need. An online teaching endorsement should be no more difficult to get than what a teacher is required to have in order to teach in any VT private school. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

      • Kids should NOT be spending all their time “learning” in front of a screen. What really happens is that they get distracted by YouTube and everything else. What’s wrong with workbooks, pencil and paper?

        • I agree!

          As I mentioned above – there is nothing wrong with workbooks, pencils and paper. And there is nothing in the tenants of virtual learning requiring students to spend all of their time in front of a screen.

          But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There are some great educational videos on Youtube. Google Yuotube educational videos – About 1,170,000,000 results (0.50 seconds)

          • Do you really think young children, or even teenagers for that matter, are going to spend on-line time watching educational programs unless closely supervised, which doesn’t happen in households where parents have work to do? A few nerds might, but kids tend to gravitate towards the latest YouTube fad as soon as you turn your back. That’s the reality. Then they’ll pretend to be watching what they’re supposed to be watching if you check in on them.

            Virtual education in a supervised setting is fine but won’t work at home unless one parent is free to do this.

            Maybe we’re not talking about the same thing. My objection is to 100% virtual learning via zoom and the internet, which is what about 1/3 of the parents at our school have, amazingly, opted for, and most likely this is because they’re scared to death of a virus that rarely harms children.

          • Great point, Jim. 100% of any one thing is usually a bad idea, especially when it’s the current public school monopoly. So, clearly, we’re not talking about the same thing. Even if parents have to go to work, on-line learning doesn’t have to be unsupervised? Think about it. On-line learning doesn’t mean always on-line. It doesn’t mean there’s no face to face communication, or no sports, or no field trips, or no homework, pencils and paper – or no adult teachers present. It’s just one more education arrow in the quiver.

      • It’s all about money going to Castleton. Outschool just lets teachers go if they can’t handle the technology. There are no credentials required. Just a background check. Then prove yourself or you’re gone. Unfortunately they don’t award diplomas.

        • Outschool is a great example of what’s available.
          https://outschool.com/#abkd4zh32o

          I know teachers creating on-line content for it.

          P.S. Diplomas aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Vermont graduates 90% of its K-12 students even though only half of them meet grade level standards. Companies like IBM, Google, and others no longer require college degrees for employment.

          P.P.S. It costs as much per student to educate a 1st grader in Vermont’s public-school monopoly as it does to send a student to Castleton State for a year – and Castleton throws in room and board too.

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