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A Deadly Gamble With Our Children

By Joey Kennedy

I’m curious to see how Alabama’s public schools, colleges, and universities are going to safely open their doors in August. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging in Alabama and other states – including those surrounding Alabama (Florida is the real mess), do public officials really believe schools can safely open? Really?

Or are they closing their eyes and just hoping the virus will go away, like Donald Trump and his administration said it would?

It’s a serious question.

I do have a stake in this. I teach at UAB, and every semester we have students who get sick with anything from the common cold to the regular flu to much more serious illnesses. Still, I’ll say this for the administration at UAB: They have strict guidelines they are preparing to be sure that not only are masks, social distancing, hand washing, testing, and other strategies deployed, they can pivot quickly if the disease breaks out on campus and go remote.

Alabama’s public elementary, middle, and high schools, not so much.

Don’t buy that “kids don’t really get sick” or “they don’t spread the virus like adults” stuff. That’s fantasy. At a summer camp in Georgia, 85 kids and counselors came down with the virus. In Missouri, at another summer camp, 82 kids and counselors were infected. Other infections have broken out at camps and outdoor parties across the nation.

Yeah, kids get it, too, and they give it to their counselors, their teachers, their parents, their grandparents, and on and on.

Sadly, it’s not like the virus is waning. This summer – the summer that Trump promised the heat would kill the virus and it would disappear – we’re in worse shape than during the previous peak back in April. And folks, this is still the first wave.

Dr. Mark Benfield is a pediatric nephrologist. He takes care of children and young adults with kidney disease and who have had kidney transplants. He’s been doing this for decades, the past few years in his own practice, Pediatric Nephrology of Alabama in Birmingham.

Benfield, too, is uncertain about the future of in-person schooling this August and beyond.

“There are several things that we know for certain,” Benfield said in an interview by email. “COVID-19 is very effective and efficient at spreading from one person to another; the risk of spread is markedly increased by close proximity, for prolonged periods of time, in indoor spaces especially with poor ventilation/air movement.  That is why we are asked to continue social distancing; avoid indoor activities for long periods; and wear a mask.”

But, then:  “We can’t get adults to remain socially distant and wear a mask,” Benfield pointed out. “How in the world do we expect school-aged children to do those things?”

And while it’s true that most children who contract the disease have mild symptoms, some get really sick. Even worse, they give the disease to their teachers and school staff, and take it home to Mom and Dad and Granny and Pawpaw.

There’s talk in Alabama of having a school nurse at every school, and creating quarantine rooms if a student (or staff member) tests positive for the disease. But a big problem the state is having involves testing. We’re still not doing enough, and tests for children are, frankly, rare.

“We have very little data, because children have not been extensively tested to date,” Benfield said. “However, we do now have the experience of significant disease transmission in children in summer camps, and adults in bars and restaurants.  Although we have no data, I do not think it is a stretch to think that children in schools will pose many of these same challenges and risks, and that it is likely that there will be massive transmission of infection.”

Still, there have been some children who get severely ill, and some have died, Benfield said.

“There is the poorly understood post-infection syndrome – multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children,” he said. “Events that are one-in-a-million only matter when you or your child are the one sick patient.  But, even if children do not get significantly ill, this new spread of COVID-19 among school-aged children will be brought home to mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and, worse yet, grandparents who will get severe disease and some will die.”

It seems state officials are willing to roll the dice just to get schools reopened, and to what end? Can children learn in an environment where they’re always afraid they might get sick? Can teachers effectively teach if they’re worried they’ll get sick and infect their loved ones who may have an underlying illness?

But, too, can we just sit around and worry? We have to move forward, right?. The truth is, if we had a little more patience, we wouldn’t be in this position anyway. We opened the states too quickly. We did, and despite predictions this would happen, we find ourselves in a real mess now. And because it’s summer, it’s a hot mess.

Would Benfield send his own children back to school?

“The real answer is, I don’t know,” Benfield said. “I don’t have much of a dog in this hunt either.  My daughters are sending their children to school and daycare.  I am following my own advice and severely limiting my exposure to them because of this increased risk of spread.

“My decisions about school would hinge on what the rest of my life was like.  If I could easily socially distance from other relatives, I would probably consider sending my children to school.  If I had to provide care for an elderly relative, or, like me, if I had to work around vulnerable populations, I would probably not.”

This is literally, deadly serious. But in a few short weeks, we’re apparently going to gamble with our children’s lives, and the lives of their loved ones and teachers.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes this column each month for B-Metro magazine. Email:

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