Infection modeling suggests schools could reopen, but not without significant risk

While parents and teachers scramble to prepare their kids for school this fall, either via online learning or mixing in-person instruction, health officials say there is no 100% way to eliminate the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

Researchers at the Institute of Disease Modeling released a new report this week that suggests it may be possible to safely pair in-person and online learning but it could depend on factoring the newest infection rates for each community.

But there are other factors parents say need to be considered before school begins in only a few weeks.

The new modeling suggests that even if social distancing and other measures are strictly followed, there remains a significant risk for students, teachers and staff. But for some school districts in our region that have already chosen to offer online classes, some parents worry their kids are being left behind.

“It’s here you have to battle through it,” said 14-year-old Jillian Bunch.

Bunch hasn’t played basketball with her friends in weeks. And like so many other students she feels cheated by a virus that has stolen her high school freshman year

“I just wanted to go to school and play basketball and that’s not going to happen,” she said.

Her school district announced Thursday that nearly all students would be learning from a distance – apart from teachers, students and friends.

Jillian’s mom says many kids are starting to feel the stress.

“Mental health challenges just keep adding up,” said Jenn Bunch. “These kids are isolated.”

On Friday, health officials shared a report by the IODM that attempts to predict the virus’ impact should schools reopen fully or partially, and which age groups could begin first.

The report says any return to campus will result in new infections, but how many depends on a number of factors. Many also share concern over the psychological impacts for kids.

“We must be working towards getting our kids in school,” said Lacy Fehrenbach from the Washington State Department of Health.

A rally on Thursday in Pierce County urged the Peninsula School District to reconsider online-only classes. In some neighborhoods, just connecting to the internet is impossible, say parents.

Plus, other parts of the county are seeing more infections that have not reached the peninsula.

“Only .03% of the cases in Pierce County are occurring on this side of the bridge,” said Representative Jesse Young.

The report concludes that reopening schools is inherently risky.

Screening for symptoms is imperfect and external community spread remains a wild card.

But, where possible, mixing in-person and online education for all students or just elementary kids is preferred.

Even though Jillian worries if the upheaval will impact her years from now.

“I want to do something dental,” she said. “I need to go hands-on and learn how to do things.”

The report points out while we still don’t know a lot about the role school-aged students play in spreading the virus – the latest science suggests if they are infected, they usually show fewer symptoms.