SUBSCRIBE NOW

Spread of coronavirus, not PPE, top superintendents' concerns heading into school year

Lee Rood
Des Moines Register
Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo speaks Aug. 6 at a news conference in Johnston. Over 500,000 people, which equals 1 in 6 Iowans, have been tested for the coronavirus, Gov. Kim Reynolds said at the same press conference.

Nearly 600,000 masks, along with 109,085 face shields, 22,527 gallon-sized bottles of bleach, 63,074 bottles of hand sanitizer, 233,303 pairs of gloves and 12,398 thermometers.

That’s what Iowa school districts have told the state they need to help protect students, teachers and staff from the coronavirus during the first 30 days of the school year — even after they’ve spent federal money and large sums from their own budgets to acquire supplies.

They made the requests after Gov. Kim Reynolds pledged to provide up to a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment as part of Iowa’s Return to Learn plan.

The Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management will begin distributing “as many of the requested supplies as possible” beginning next week, Department of Education Director Ann Lebo said during a news conference with Reynolds last Thursday.

Reynolds introduced educators at that news conference who underscored a need for Iowa’s school children to return to classrooms because of the services districts may provide.

“We are a safety net,” said Joel Pederson, the superintendent of the Cardinal Community School District, a small, Wapello County district of around 815 students where 59% qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. “We have to get our kids back to support them in so many things that they need.”

As school start dates near, however, anxiety is palpable among parents, educators, administrators and community members. Several have written Watchdog with fears that the stockpile of supplies, preparations for social distancing and guidelines for when schools can close because of the spread of coronavirus are not enough.

Christina Jensen, a retiree in Albia, wrote to share her concerns after the southern Iowa city's community school district decided to return to in-person learning five days a week, without a mask requirement for teachers or students, when school starts on Aug. 25.

Jensen said she fears infection will ripple quickly through her town of 3,700.

"It seems to me this is a disaster waiting to happen. This virus cannot be ignored," she said. "Hospitals should be worried. I am worried. I will no longer be doing business in Albia because public spaces will be especially unsafe."

Albia school officials decided masks will be required on school buses, students will not eat lunch together in the cafeteria and that there will be no locker use. Superintendent Kevin Crall has said the district will monitor the situation closely and switch to a hybrid plan or online learning if necessary.

A study released this week by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association found a 40% increase in child coronavirus cases during the final two weeks in July, a jump of more than 97,000.

Although no one has reported any child deaths from the disease in Iowa, it's blamed for the deaths of 86 children nationally since May.

Jensen said the governor continues to stress the need for children to return to in-person instruction but says little about the increased likelihood of transmission when school resumes.

"Of course kids need school, and they need education," she said. "But that need could cost a community several lives."

Indianola was forced to quarantine a first-grade class after a positive case was reported four days into the school year at Irving Elementary School.

Although experts agree in-person instruction is more effective for students than online learning, school officials have tried to strike a balance with the risk posed by the coronavirus, which had killed 935 Iowans as of Tuesday morning.

President Donald Trump has said schools may need to delay reopening if they are in infection hotspots. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said a hotspot would be any locale with a test positivity rate of 5% or more.

Redfield also has said a national mask requirement for six to eight weeks would most likely bring positivity rates to a safe level.

As of Tuesday, 80 of Iowa's 99 counties qualified as hotspots under that standard. But only six had positivity rates of 15% or more — the threshold set by Reynolds before schools can be considered for online-only learning.

Some infectious disease experts in Iowa have said the 15% bar is arbitrary and doesn't make sense from a public health standpoint. Jon Sheldahl, chief administrator of Heartland Area Education Agency in Fort Dodge, said universal mask-wearing should be required in public to drive down infection rates before kids return to class.

Sheldahl said that in twice-a-week calls heading into the new school year, superintendents across the state have expressed more concern about maintaining safe social distancing for teachers and students than they have about personal protective supplies.

“The only exception is Clorox wipes,” he said. “People are making their own.”

But in her news conference last Thursday, Reynolds said she still doesn’t think a statewide mask mandate is a good idea, even though Iowa is one of a dwindling number of states that still doesn’t have one.

“I just don’t believe a one-size-fits-all from a government mandate is the right direction to take,” she said. Instead, she said, districts can require masks but should be flexible when schools start to adjust their plans as new information becomes available.

She said that whether a district has a 10% absenteeism rate or a 15% 14-day coronavirus test positivity rate would be factors in deciding whether temporary, all-virtual instruction is warranted.

"Community context” also will be a key measure in some cases, Reynolds said, but her office hasn't defined how it will be measured.

In several news conferences, however, Reynolds and others have underscored research suggesting children have a lower coronavirus transmission rate than adults.

State epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati said last week that children currently make up less than 6% of positive coronavirus cases statewide and that research in France, Australia and Ireland suggests transmission is not as likely in schools as it is at home.

But a new study released the same week in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics further complicated back-to-school discussions, finding that children infected with the virus have at least as much coronavirus in their noses and throats as do infected adults.

The findings don’t necessarily prove children are more likely to pass the virus to each other, but that they may be every bit the carriers adults are, the small study found.

Another study from South Korea analyzed nearly 60,000 contact points from 5,706 patients with COVID-19. Researchers found the use of personal protective measures, such as masks, and physical or social distancing reduced the likelihood of transmission — and that the rate of transmission for children age 10 and over can be as high as for adults.

News this summer of outbreaks at the Eldora Boys State Training School, a detention center in Iowa, and summer camps around the country have not boded well for schools hoping to reopen safely, particularly in counties where infection rates are high.

A CDC study, released after more than 250 children and young adults were infected at a camp in Georgia, underscored that children of all ages can get infected, pass the virus on to others and, the authors wrote, “might play an important role in transmission.”

Phil Roeder, a spokesperson for the Des Moines Public Schools, said the district has already spent $250,000 in federal money to stock up on masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, Plexiglass barriers and other equipment.

But the district is still planning on pushing its start date to Sept. 8 and is asking the state for permission to go entirely online at the start of the school year because school officials feel that’s what safest for the district's 33,000 students and 5,000 employees.

Roeder said the district is struggling to purchase some supplies, such as highly demanded sprayers for antimicrobial solutions to disinfect desks and tables. But that's not nearly as concerning as the pressure to resume in-person instruction by the state, he said.

"The state could provide every student and teacher with a hazmat suit and it doesn't change the fact that the metrics they are using are bad, that the level of community spread required to even ask for permission to do online learning is dangerously high, and that children can both contract and spread COVID-19," he said.

He said professional baseball teams have all the money they need to try to keep players safe and have been playing in empty stadiums, but many teams still have seen their schedules disrupted when coaches or players test positive.

“We know how this story’s going to end. And it’s not going to be a very happy ending for some people,” he said.

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.

County case counts as of 3 p.m. Wednesday

Information is from the state’s coronavirus dashboard website. The new count of confirmed cases is the first number followed by the numbers from the day before.

Des Moines County

Confirmed cases: 193/186

Recoveries: 107

Deaths: 2

Henry County

Confirmed cases: 136/127

Recoveries: 93

Deaths: 4

Lee County

Confirmed cases: 122/118

Recoveries: 54

Deaths: 4

Louisa County

Confirmed cases: 378/378

Recoveries: 355

Deaths: 14

Van Buren County

Confirmed cases: 36/36

Recoveries: 22

Deaths: 1

According to the Western Illinois University’s Illinois Coronavirus Awareness Dashboard and local health departments, case counts for west central Illinois are as follows:

Hancock County

Confirmed cases: 63/62

Deaths: 1

Henderson County

Confirmed cases: 13/13

Deaths: 0

State epidemiologist. Dr. Caitlin Pedati takes questions on the COVID-19 response April 21 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston.