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What if COVID doesn’t end up as less lethal killer than the flu going forward?
Dennis Wyatt RGB
Dennis Wyatt

The futurists have it wrong.

The current public school model is not antiquated. It is essential.

There is little doubt as we grumble our way through the 12th month of a pandemic health emergency that “old school” schools play a bigger role in the lives of children and families than many may have wanted to admit to in recent years.

And is also underscores the hard decision school boards have made — and has been harshly criticized in some quarters — to push relentlessly to return to some form of in-person learning as soon as possible, while reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19 at school as much as reasonably possible.

Schools over the decades have assumed more and more roles beyond basically educating children. They have been the first line in testing many kids for health issues that could be detrimental to fully reaching their potential. They have become the largest network to detect child abuse and even youth toying with suicide. They are the most consistent disseminator and re-enforcer of COVID warning signs and protocols to combat its spread.

Being at school are often the only times many students get a nutritious lunch and breakfast and – in the case of some – even eat on some days.

The use of campuses for everything from youth sports as well as adult recreation sports to scouting and 4-H have made them de facto community centers.

Slam public schools all you want, but the pandemic has driven the point home that public schools are more critical than ever.

Last month out of Las Vegas came even more verification about the role the social aspects of schools play in mental health. Clark County schools – the nation’s fifth largest school district – is pushing to reopen schools as soon as possible. What is driving them is an alarming increase in student suicides and suicidal students. From March to November, 18 students committed suicide, double the number of the previous year.

Equally alarming are the number of kids contemplating or researching suicide.

After experiencing their sixth suicide since March, the district invested in a program called GoGuardian Beacon for installation on school-issued iPads. The program scans student research of topics such suicide research, self-harm, written comments, or the need for simply help and support. It then forwards the district reports on students that may be at mild to severe suicide risk.

During the first five months of the program’s use the district received 3,100 alerts. The sheer number prompted the district to invest in 24-hour monitoring as well as a service to identify the most severe cases to identity those students that had already identified a methodology and were ready to act.

That upgraded system saved the life of a 12-year-old boy who had researched how to make an effective noose on his school-issued iPad. The boy’s father, who worked at odd shift, had gone to bed at 7 p.m. and had set his alarm for 2 a.m. The district kept on calling him over and over again when it was alerted of the boy’s internet research. When the phone finally awakened him at 10 a.m. he went to his son’s bedroom and found him with a noose made of shoelaces around his neck.

The boy survived. Subsequent follow-up revealed that although he was doing well academically the boy said he had been “Zoomed out” and that he missed his friends.

Greta Massetti who researches the impact of violence and trauma on children for the Centers for Disease Controls notes there is no specific data yet tying 100 percent distance learning wedded with other COVID-19 lockdowns protocols to an increased in youth suicides during the pandemic.

She noted, however, that there was “definitely reason to be concerned because it makes conceptual sense.”

What isn’t debatable is that suicide among youth and young adults has been growing for the last decade. It is now the second leading cause of death in both categories being suicide.

Then there is the question of learning loss.

Good luck finding evidence that it isn’t real and that it isn’t significant.

There are students who do thrive or the negative impacts of distance learning are minimal. But the longer students are kept from in-person learning, the more loss there is. There will clearly be a point where it has the potential to morph into a lifelong deficit for many.

These are not waning concerns as more and more people get COVID vaccines or contract the coronavirus and recover. None of that precludes a third surge or even a fourth.

We talk like herd immunity as if it is magical and will send COVID-19 into epidemiology history.

But given there are variants emerging and the fact it indeed is spread much like the flu, we may have to soon have a real serious discussion as a society where we go next.

If COVID-19 eventually becomes not much more deadlier than the flu, will that really be okay? Unlike the flu where Centers for Disease Control numbers are described as “estimates” because of reporting practices around influenza that doesn’t make it the cause of death when the person dies when having it, we have been told COVID figures include anyone tested positive for it when they died.

The last big flu season in the United States was 2017-2018. There were a record 810,000 hospitalizations and “61,000 deaths” with the accompanying note that the uncertainty means the actual death range could have been between 46,000 and 95,000 based on what is called the “uncertain interval.”

If COVID gets to the point it is not much worse than the flu based on the more robust and attentive tracking of the cause of death that rightfully has been given the new respiratory disease, it is quite possible we may have 250,000 annual deaths as a minimum between the flu and COVID-19 going forward. Given we are at 410,000 and still counting with COVID during just over 10 months, what will be deemed “acceptable” by those at the controls when it comes to our collective health and how it impacts the economy and our behaviors?

It is clear based on dropping flu numbers during the pandemic that the same measures that can combat COVID are also effective at reducing the spread of flu and even the common cold. That would mean the basic steps of masks, social distancing, plastic barriers, limiting crowds and such work to reduce the impact of COVID and the flu.

Against that backdrop which is not a given just as much as the fact COVID basically all but disappearing in a year is not a given, is why we must reassess our approach to lockdowns ranging from schools to every other endeavor that is part of day-to-day life.

At any rate someone has to decide at what point were really do get back to normal. Governor Newsom’s four color tiers may seem promising as a guide but it assumes COVID is basically snuffed out to return to pre-pandemic life. The question that will need to be asked sooner than later is simple: What if COVID-19 going forward in the best case scenarios has a death rate closer to double that of flu?

It might seem foolish not to wait it out before rethinking the degree of lockdowns and such, but there is a chance that we may never reach such a point in COVID cases even with vaccines and herd immunity that deaths are no worse than the flu.

It might be controllable to a large degree like the flu but that is entirely different than becoming a blip on the chart listing the annual cause of human deaths.

This is not the time to simply throw caution to the wind. But at the same time to keep things locked down tighter than a drum especially when institutions such as schools can function reasonably safely with protocols in place runs the risk of doing significant, long lasting damage to otherwise healthy people.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.