Central Community School’s Return to Learn plan approved, but remains fluid

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

Against the backdrop of over 150,000 nationwide COVID-19 related deaths, increased cases across the country and within the county and growing public concern, the Central Community School Board has undertaken the unenviable task of crafting a Return to Learn Plan. The effort was led by board president Jered Finley and superintendent Nick Trenkamp, who attempted to put the public’s mind at ease, but continuously added that the plan, which was approved July 30, remains, in the words of Finley, “fluid” to make any necessary amendments. 

One aspect of the plan that prompted public concern is the school’s plan for lunch. When asked what that would look like at the school board meeting on July 27, as it pertains to socially distancing and lunch schedules, Trenkamp said, “I don’t know. We have ideas.” 

Several options have been mentioned via  Q&As and at work sessions, such as utilizing foyer space, expanding into the gym, eating outside at picnic tables and serving lunches in the classroom for elementary students, but all of them were essentially dismissed. The current lunch plan, which includes limited social distancing and no masks for fifth grade and younger, rests on a study conducted in South Korea, which is cited in the most recent Return to Learn Plan Q&A. 

That section also includes the statement “students 10 years and younger (fifth grade and younger) are less likely to transfer COVID-19 to others.” Trenkamp also said during the work session that “the disease, by all accounts, does not affect the kids that much,” so they are focusing more heavily on efforts to socially distance middle and high school lunchtimes. 

However, that same study discussed several limitations that should be acknowledged, most notably “that the number of cases might have been underestimated because all asymptomatic cases might not have been identified.” Furthermore, the study stated, “young children may show higher attack rates…contributing to community transmission of COVID-19.” 

Younger children aged nine and below showed a 2.1 percent infection rate as well. This could be because only symptomatic children were tested. The problem of asymptomatic children is born out in another study, which was done in affiliation with the Institute of Virology in Berlin, Germany, which states, “It is obvious that children are under-represented in clinical studies and are less frequently diagnosed due to mild or absent symptoms.” The lack of symptoms means they don’t get tested and therefore are never included in the overall index of confirmed cases. 

Another concern is that “children have virtually the same average viral load as adults,” meaning the capacity to carry the disease. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found children with even mild symptoms have “10 to 100 times” the amount of the virus in their throat and nasal passages as adults. This left the authors to conclude “that young children, while not as prone to suffering from COVID-19 infection, still drive its spread.” 

A similar study comes from Trento, Italy, where researchers found that, while children are at a lower risk for infection, “children age 14 and younger transmit the virus more efficiently to other children and adults.” The study concluded “Its youngest participants were the most efficient transmitters of the disease.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently conducted a health investigation involving a summer camp in Georgia where 260 of 344 people tested positive for COVID-19 after the camp ignored CDC advice that all participants wear masks, not just the adult staff. This led the authors of the report to state “that children of all ages are susceptible to COVID-19 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.” 

While discussing masks, the school board urged parents, students, and staff to “start practicing,” wearing a mask, so they are prepared when school starts. However, masks are not currently required anywhere except on the bus; there is only an expectation that they will be worn inside the building in situations where social distancing is not feasible. 

Masks presented several concerns, most notably how some parents do not want their kids to wear them all day, the difficulty in keeping them on younger students and how requiring them could impact enrollment. 

Deborah Birx, the White House physician overseeing the coronavirus response, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, leading infectious-disease expert, in concert with the CDC, continue to stress the importance of strict social distancing and the wearing of masks. 

About the issue of social distancing, Trenkamp said, “We are not going to say that we can guarantee six feet apart. That’s why we are offering a remote option. If a parent is afraid to come to school, they have the option of remote. There is no possible way we can guarantee six feet.” 

This prompted local community member Jason Atkinson to remark, “If it’s impossible to follow the CDC guidelines...then it’s impossible for the kids to go back to school.” 

The Return to Learn Plan includes in-person and remote learning options, both of which present unique problems. In discussing the remote option and the relatively low participation during the spring lockdown, school board member Mike Whittle asked, “How can we get kids to take this seriously?” 

Trenkamp stated that students would be subject to truancy laws, something that was not the case during the spring. 

Another issue with the remote option has to do with equity, specifically access to “adequate internet services.” While the school is looking into putting up hot spots, this comes with its own set of burdens and a time commitment not present in traditional at-home remote learning. There is also a socioeconomic component, as parents of means can more readily afford to keep their kids at home. 

Atkinson said of the plan, “They are putting the public’s safety and health at risk through reckless disregard of the recommended CDC guidelines.” 

It was a deciding factor in the decision to enroll his children in an online program, separate from the school. 

Central’s Return to Learn Plan itself remains fluid and many aspects are still to be decided in the coming weeks. Links to the full plan can be found on the Central Community School website and Facebook page.

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