A Safe Return for Tacoma Schools

By Jayla Watje and Brent Gaspaire

Editor’s note:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grit City Magazine.

The current situation with schools and remote learning is controversial to say the least. There are respectable positions on both sides of the argument; both based in fact and lived experiences. This is one perspective and we welcome others. If you have something to say that’s bigger than the comment section, email editor@gritcitymag.com and let’s talk.

With half a million Americans dead from Covid-19, and several more lethal variants of the virus on the rise, Tacoma Public Schools claims it is now safe to resume in-person learning for all 30,000 students.

Some Tacomans have vocally questioned the district’s timing—especially considering these grim developments and the CDC’s recent warnings of a potential new surge in Coronavirus cases.

In light of these circumstances, prudence would dictate at least vaccinating staff prior to reopening. This seems all the more reasonable now that vaccines are available for teachers in Washington and hundreds of TPS employees have already received their first dose. 

The district, to its credit, has initiated several mass vaccination clinics for employees, but slots for the 350 doses filled in less than two hours. TPS should continue this course of action and delay in-person instruction until all staff have been vaccinated. This could be accomplished in a relatively short period of time and have potentially life-saving ramifications. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine featured at several clinics, for example, requires only a 3-week waiting period for the second dose. Thus, postponing the return to school until after spring break (an additional two-week interruption) would allow the district to resume face-to-face instruction with a potentially immunized staff. In lieu of these baseline protections, a remote teaching option should remain available for all of those who want or need it.

Most Americans Want Teachers Vaccinated

Recent polling data suggests majoritarian support for this kind of vaccination-first approach. Over half of the approximately 2,000 voters surveyed in the 2/12-2/15 Morning Consult/Politico poll stated that schools should wait until teachers are immunized to reopen. 

Given the partisan split highlighted by this national poll, the percentage supporting vaccinations for teachers in Democratic-leaning Tacoma is likely higher. 

Polling data also suggests a fairly stark racial divide in this rush to resume in person learning. According to at least one recent study only 18 percent of Black parents and 22 percent of Latinx parents wanted an immediate return to in person learning. For white parents that number was 45%. In fact, only 34% of those polled shared TPS’s view that schools should open as quickly as possible.

To be clear there are ways to resume in-person learning safely. Unfortunately, TPS is currently following a different path.

The negative repercussions of the district’s rush to resume face-to-face instruction will regrettably extend into the community and beyond the parents, students, and teachers who are immediately impacted.

Tacoma Does Not Meet CDC Thresholds

Much has been made about the CDC’s recent guidelines concerning reopening of schools. Many, for example, have taken its Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation to be a blanket endorsement of in-person learning. 

This is not the case. 

Instead, the document presents a set of specific guidelines indicating the best practices to implement for school districts that choose to resume in-person instruction. There are also recommendations about when and under what conditions schools might consider reopening. 

Tacoma falls short in many criteria. Most importantly, infection numbers do not meet case thresholds for middle and high school students and Tacoma is arguably failing to properly mitigate the dangers faced by elementary staff and students.

Further actions from the district are needed regarding adequate mask wearing and materials, the implementation and true definition of cohorts, communication of safety plans, and other issues.

Proper ventilation, for example, was a concern in many of Tacoma’s school buildings even before the pandemic. Several sites have long been subject to complaints from staff and students who have had issues with heating, cooling, and air quality as well as problems with mold and mildew. 

These problems do not solely arise in Tacoma’s aging buildings. Even recently developed sites such as Mount Tahoma (that boasts a ventilation system powered by Windows XP) struggles with classrooms choked by stifling summertime heat, frigid winters, and stagnant air that occasionally circulates from bathroom stalls into classrooms. 

The strong scent of marijuana and fecal matter suddenly greeting students at their desks is a recurrent phenomenon. Open windows offer little remedy and the addition of SARS-CoV-2 respiratory droplets to the mix make for a particularly unsafe cocktail. 

Windowless classrooms (yes that’s a thing) provide even fewer options.  

Needless to say, it is reasonable to question how TPS will meet the CDC’s core standard to “improve ventilation” when numerous buildings already painfully lack it. 

Mitigation of Risk Does not Eliminate Risk

As helpful as these CDC guidelines are, it has been noted that many of the studies underlying the recommendation were derived from hospitals and other medical settings in which the participants were trained healthcare professionals. 

While the science behind these studies is clearly sound, the degree to which a nose-picking second grader can follow social distancing and hygiene protocols will probably fall short of an anesthesiologist.  

Access to high-quality masks, for example, are readily available to doctors, but might not be on hand for the average Tacoma family. TPS simply advises students to wear cloth masks to school, but the CDC has indicated that these do not offer the same degree of protection

It is also important to note that CDC guidelines repeatedly utilize the phrase “mitigation” in their discussions of resuming in-person instruction. This is at the very least a tacit acknowledgement on their part that baseline precautions such as masks and social distancing are not foolproof.  

Thus, the decision to resume in person instruction rests on an implicit logic of “acceptable casualties” that is deeply disturbing. 

Newer, more deadly, variations of the virus may further complicate the picture. These mitigation strategies may yet prove irrelevant as emergent circumstances alter the calculus of the CDC’s decisions. Short of a universally vaccinated staff and student body, Covid will likely spread in even the best conditions. 

It is not hyperbole to suggest this will lead to additional (and yet easily preventable) fatalities. 

Putting Our Most Vulnerable Community Members at Risk

Families in Tacoma face unimaginably difficult circumstances, and for many, having kids at home isn’t sustainable. The immediate return to school proposed by TPS, however, carries far more devastating consequences.

TPS’s hasty approach to reopening schools will disproportionately impact our Black and brown students as well as our most vulnerable community members. According to the CDC 78% of people under 21 who died from Covid-19 involved people belonging to minority groups.

Death is the most obvious danger associated with SARS-CoV-2, but the long-term health impacts of those who get the virus can also be severe. 

For children who experience lasting illness because of Covid (an increasingly common trend), low-income students of color again face the greatest health risks. As one news outlet described the rising prevalence of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), “The majority of cases have occurred in children of color… with 69 percent being Hispanic, Latino or Black.”

While the affliction is still rare and SARS-CoV-2 generally manifests relatively benign symptoms in children, this is not the case for adults in multigenerational households. Students who pick up the virus at school will carry it home to less resilient family members. 

There is data to bolster this claim and at least one study noted a 30% increase in Covid cases among secondary students after 20 days of in-person instruction. An upsurge was also recorded for K-8 students, but none for those engaged in virtual learning.

The risks associated with a return to in-person learning are very real. While it seems highly unlikely the district will take the safest approach of postponing until a vaccine is available to students (clinical trials are still underway), allowing time for teachers to receive vaccinations seems more than reasonable. With the prospect of an immunized staff in the immediate horizon, it simply makes sense to wait a little longer. 

Virtual learning may have its faults but potential declines in education outcomes can be reversed. 

Death cannot.

  1. I don’t argue any of your data, but I do argue risk… my 6th grader had two days of in person instruction and his contact with others was very well distanced. Everyone had 2 layer masks, and they took everyone’s temperature at the door. Those 2 days have completely changed his engagement with his classes though. He dressed up, he made comments, he was excited to be there. I’m not sure his risk was as great as you suggest.

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