Arlington Union: Test Everyone or Close the Schools

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by James A. Bacon

I can’t decide which is scarier: a letter from the Arlington Education Association (AEA) urging school superintendent Francisco Duran not to resume full-time instruction tomorrow in the absence of sufficient COVID-19 testing, or the insouciant attitude toward punctuation and grammar by the signatory, AEA president Ingrid Gant. Take your pick: no in-person school, a proven disaster… or the possibility that the letter represents the literacy standards of Arlington school teachers, a potential disaster that will long out-last the COVID virus.

Arlington parent Ellen Gallery, a  home-schooling mom, ridiculed the letter on social media, highlighting typos and garbled syntax in the manner of an English teacher grading a paper. All the mark-up lacked was an F- at the top. Gallery’s post was disseminated widely in conservative media, and the letter well deserves the mockery it has received.

However, let us not overlook the substance of the missive. The Arlington teacher’s union is pushing back against reopening the schools. Gant wants to ensure that “teachers spending hours in close contact are not inflected.” If the Arlington teachers’ union is making this demand, surely teachers in other districts are as well. The Omicron school panic could well become Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s first big leadership test.
Insofar as the AEA letter is comprehensible, it calls for more testing. “Leadership prepares to send educators into situations that will make them sick…. The AEA calls on APS to provide testing to every student and staff member prior to returning to the classroom and/or remain virtual until January 18.”

Let us set aside, for the moment, the fact that testing capacity is scarce nationally. Abiding by Gant’s demands would guarantee that Arlington schools would remain closed to in-person learning through January 18 — the letter is not clear why that date is significant — and jeopardize any chance that students will catch up from the lost academic year of 2020/21.

Let us consider the practicality. Gant proposes specifically that APS test “every student and staff member” prior to returning to the classroom. If no one is allowed to return to school until they have been tested, how is APS supposed to administer the test?

Furthermore, what good is a single test? A student or teacher might be uninfected January 3, but given the high rate of community spread — seven-day moving average of 784 cases in Arlington, as of December 31, according to the Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard  — anyone could be infected the next day. To alleviate Gant’s fears, should every student and staff member be tested every day? If not, what is the point?

Every teacher who wants to be is fully vaccinated and boosted. All evidence points to Omicron being milder than the Delta variant of COVID-19 that it is displacing. If an individual teacher is obese, has a compromised immune system or is otherwise at high risk, perhaps it makes sense to make special accommodations for them as individuals. But shutting down in-person learning entirely makes no sense.

The seven-day moving average of Arlington hospitalizations was only two, as of December 31, and the number of deaths was only one. The VDH database doesn’t tell us the age of the deceased or list their co-morbidities, but it’s a good bet they were high risk and/or elderly, not school kids.

Gant’s call for testing echoes the policies in New York City where, according to policy, those who test negative or are asymptomatic can continue with in-person classes. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appearing on the Rachel Maddow show last week, cast doubt that Omicron is resulting in more hospitalizations for children.

Quantitatively, you’re having so many more people, including children, who are getting infected. And even though hospitalization among children is much much lower on a percentage basis than hospitalizations for adults, particularly elderly individuals. However, when you have such a large volume of infections among children, even with a low level of rate of infection, you’re gonna still see a lot more children who get hospitalized.

But the other important thing, is that if you look at the children who are hospitalized, many of them are hospitalized with COVID, as opposed to because of COVID. And what we mean by that, if a child goes in the hospital, they automatically get tested for COVID, and they get counted as a COVID hospitalized individual. When in fact, they may go in for a broken leg or appendicitis or something like that.

Look, we’re all going to get Omicron. The virus is so transmissible that there will be no escaping it for the vast majority of us. Get your vaccinations, get your boosters, take Vitamin D supplements, don’t let yourself get obese.* Self-isolate if you have special risk factors. Otherwise, get on with life.

* I would suggest stop smoking. But according to a 2020 article in the American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care, “the prevalence of current smokers among hospitalized patients with COVID-19 has been reported consistently lower than the prevalence of smokers among the general population.” The article theorizes that cigarette smoke activates metabolic processes in the lung that inactivate or modify the virus!