Governor Stitt recently held a press conference to announce his plans for opening Oklahoma’s schools in the face of fear and loathing by many regarding Covid-19. There is a great deal of paranoia surrounding this disease, which the 1889 Institute has attempted to moderate by posting accurate information, in contrast to media more interested in sensation. Despite the fear, Governor Stitt is admirably insisting that schools should open. He cannot overrule local school boards and mandate that schools reopen, and even if he could, it would be impolitic not to take steps to reassure parents, teachers, students, and administrators that schools can be opened and attended safely. So, he has taken extraordinary measures to reassure everyone. His plan includes measures like regular viral testing and provisions for personal protective equipment (PPE).
Just about any public policy has unintended effects that decision makers fail to anticipate. Unfortunately, when public policy is being devised, the people in the room helping to make decisions are frequently not the people who have to deal with the consequences of their policies. Intentions might be pure, but Governor Stitt’s announced measures will have consequences that were not fully anticipated, and so here are some hopefully helpful and constructive comments.
First, Governor Stitt announced the desire to devise a plan to test teachers for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on a monthly basis. This is a hopeless waste of money. For many, Covid-19 symptoms come and go within a month, and are often mild (the governor being an example). The only way constant testing could have a hope of preventing an outbreak, if that were a real risk in schools, would be if teachers were tested every day, or at least every other day. A positive test for a teacher after a clear test a month earlier could just be a result of detecting random strands of viral DNA from an already-defeated infection resulting from a robust immune response. Such an individual, never having shown symptoms, is unlikely to have ever been contagious, yet she would be sent home.
Wisely, the testing will occur on a voluntary basis. Teachers, especially those with comorbidities (an additional significant chronic illness that weakens the body and can, itself, be deadly), are the relatively vulnerable individuals in our schools, not the children. Teachers should be made aware of the symptoms they should watch for, and be tested at their individual request.
Second, a considerable amount of federal CARES Act money is to be spent on PPE, including enough reusable masks to double the number of students in Oklahoma’s public schools. More than two-thirds that number of gowns and pairs of gloves will be acquired, along with a number of face shields. While students are not invulnerable, Governor Stitt himself points out how very nearly invulnerable to this disease school-age children are. What’s more, a recent Wall Street Journal article (“For Many, Grasping Virus Risk Proves Tricky” 7/30/20) points out that Sweden’s experience with never having shut down shows teachers have a very low probability (less than 1 percent) of contracting the disease.
Also, consider the gowns and gloves. These are PPE to guard against surface transmission. The evidence is that while surface transmission is possible, it is unlikely. What’s more, gloves and gowns are likely of the throw-away variety (no doubt, the gloves are), so what, exactly, is the point? There will not be enough for everyone to don these PPE every day, or for everyone to don them for even two days. These especially seem like pointless spending and something like “hygiene theatre.”
It seems like it would be far more productive to shift CARES Act money away from testing and PPE and into doing the training and background checks necessary to have a small army of substitutes ready to fill in for teachers that might fall ill, or otherwise feel vulnerable and be waiting for test results after exhibiting symptoms.
Third, this is NOT the fault of Governor Stitt, but speaking of symptoms, some school districts, Oklahoma City’s being one of them, are talking about daily temperature checks of teachers (and presumably students). OKC’s teachers are to check their own temperatures. However, if any districts are considering mandatory testing at the door of teachers or high school students, it should be noted that fever can result from a multitude of causes. Thyroid disorders can cause low-grade fevers. So can auto-immune disorders (a comorbidity – such individuals should be informed to take special precautions). My wife has pointed out that ovulation and early pregnancies often cause fevers. Are female high school students going to have to explain that they are ovulating at the schoolhouse door to a strange screener and potentially in the presence of other students?
Finally, when it comes to Governor Stitt’s press conference and press release, I have a gripe that is admittedly unrelated to Covid-19. That’s the uncritical reporting that 60 percent of Oklahoma’s school children are eligible for the federal free/reduced price lunch program. As has been pointed out elsewhere (p 6 of the paper), this statistic clearly results from fraud. The actual number of students in households with incomes low enough to be eligible is well below 50 percent of Oklahoma public school children.
Let’s not allow New-York-based media sensationalism to cause us to panic. Policy makers should make decisions based on facts and realistic assessments of actual risk, not placate the panic-stricken with inappropriate and expensive precautions that accomplish little or nothing.
Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute Director: firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.