It’s a familiar scene. We are less than a month from the start of the school year. Once again, parents are shouting about the pandemic, at school board meetings and on social media. And once again, there aren’t many people who appear to be in charge.
We now know that the COVID-19 losses associated with remote school, lockdowns, and quarantines were many. Last year, the debate was about remote vs. in-person learning. This year, it’s over COVID-19 infection controls — masks, testing, ventilation, vaccines. Everyone seems to agree that schools should be open, but no one can agree on what open school should look like.
This is not for lack of guidance. Plenty of experts have provided roadmaps for not only reopening schools safely but — and this part is critical — keeping them open if (when) case counts rise and exposures occur. Our area’s own Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab encouraged the use of “test-to-stay,” which would allow children to remain in school following an exposure if they produce regular negative COVID tests and remain asymptomatic, in order to reduce extended absences. There is at least one district outside of Pennsylvania requiring that teachers either get vaccinated or submit to regular testing, and Upper Merion plans to do the same. Several major companies, as well as the federal government, are asking the same of their employees.
One would think that, as we enter the third school year affected by this pandemic, local leaders would be doing everything they can to advocate for and implement the protocols we know can prevent illness, exposures, quarantines, and school closures. One would be wrong.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education said weeks ago they would defer to CDC guidance on school reopening. Montgomery County, where I live, appears to be doing the same. This would be fine if the CDC’s guidance did not have troubling gaps. Specifically, the CDC recommends “promoting” vaccination, as opposed to mandating it for those eligible, and does not explicitly endorse “test-to-stay,” even though the CDC studied it with positive results. The result is that an unvaccinated student who is exposed to COVID-19 could be forced to miss at least a week of school, even if they aren’t sick or contagious.
The CDC’s missteps haven’t stopped the Philadelphia School District from coming out firmly and decisively in prioritizing in-person schooling. Last week it announced it’ll be mandating masks, utilizing “test-to-stay” protocols, and exploring vaccine requirements for its teachers. I reached out to the Montgomery County Commissioners and the Office of Public Health asking whether they plan to recommend a “test-to-stay” policy. The answer was no, as it “is not supported by” the CDC or state Department of Health. Without this, every time a child has a significant exposure, they may suddenly (and unnecessarily) be home for days on end.
So if Montgomery County officials are not working on this, what are they working on? Well, the Montgomery County Office of Public Health tweeted recently about the health benefits of “zoodles,” a pasta substitute made from zucchini. Val Arkoosh, the chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners, is tweeting about child care and helping working families, presumably as part of her U.S. Senate campaign, not focusing all her efforts to address the single greatest issue facing working families in her constituency today. And Ken Lawrence, our vice chair, is going to ribbon cuttings (with Arkoosh). All this as Montgomery County’s vaccination rates remain flat and case counts rise.
Those who have been charged with managing the pandemic response in our area have failed. Their inaction, lack of accountability, and complete abandonment of their youngest constituents are inexcusable. Worse still, the vacuum of leadership they have created is being filled with misinformation and hysterics. And once again, children are being forced to shoulder the burdens that our local leaders cannot or will not bear.
Students deserve some measure of normalcy next year. We must contact our state, local, and community leaders and demand their unequivocal support of safe in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year with as few interruptions as possible. If you’re a parent who’s been shouting at other parents, direct your ire at the local and state health officials who have the power to change things. If you’re a parent who hasn’t engaged much on this topic in the last year, now is the time to change that. In order for kids to be kids, the adults need to be adults. Hopefully, that’s not too much to ask.
Katie Calabrese is a working mom of two who lives in Montgomery County.