Decision to return to classroom irresponsible

| November 18, 2020 1:00 AM

To the Whitefish School Board trustees:

The Whitefish School District administration and staff have gone above and beyond in navigating these complicated times, and I know I speak for the community when I say thank you. Thank you for your creativity, for your hard work, and for caring about our students. The following note is written with an appreciation of how difficult these decisions are, how hard the teachers and administration are working, and the intent of keeping our teachers, students, and community safe.

As a parent and a community member, I’m writing to express my disagreement with the Nov. 10 School Board decision to return students to on-site instruction four days per week. This decision is irresponsible given the current rate of coronavirus spread in Flathead County; the CDC indicators and thresholds for risk of school transmission; the school district indicators and decision points that have been shared with the parents; the need to retain social distancing in the classrooms for the health of students, teachers, and families; the Flathead City-County Health Department’s inability to keep pace with contact tracing; decreasing hospital capacity (beds and staffing); and the potential spread following Thanksgiving gatherings.

School district communications have assured parents that guidelines about the number of students in a classroom and decisions about in-person versus remote versus hybrid instructional models will be based on indicator trends and data, including those on the Whitefish School District website, the Flathead County website, and the CDC website.

The CDC indicators for risk of introduction and transmission of COVID-19 in schools states that there is the highest risk of transmission in schools when more than 10% of tests in a county during the last 14 days are positive. During the week of Nov. 2-6, the 14-day positivity rate in Flathead County was at 23.4%, more than twice the threshold for the highest risk level. Likewise, the CDC indicators state that there is the highest risk of transmission in schools when there are more than 200 new cases per 100,000 persons in the county within the last 14 days. During the 14 days before the school board meeting, from Oct. 26- Nov. 8, there were 177.8 new cases per 100,000 persons in the county. This is currently “higher risk” and approaching the “highest risk” threshold of 200 cases.

Two of the four Whitefish School District indicators shared with the parents and the community are currently in the red level. According to these indicators, an average of 50 new cases/day in the county during any given week is considered in the red.

The rapid increase in new cases in Flathead County is disturbing, and numbers are expected to increase even more following Thanksgiving gatherings. Health experts warn that gatherings of family and friends are becoming an important vector for virus transmission.

Furthermore, the lag time it takes from exposure to infection (up to two weeks), infection to hospitalization for those who are hospitalized (approximately one week), and hospitalization to death for those who die (approximately one week) is well known.

Flathead County is already seeing an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, and, given the rapidly increasing number of new cases and the Thanksgiving holiday, these can be expected to increase. With CDC indicators already showing Flathead County schools in the highest risk category for coronavirus introduction and transmission, the Whitefish School Board’s decision to double the number of students in the classrooms, making social distancing impossible, just before (grades K-6) and after (grades 7-12) Thanksgiving is irresponsible.

A return to full classroom instruction without allowing time to see whether the post-Thanksgiving rates of COVID-19 in the community result in school transmission is blindly putting Whitefish students, teachers and families at increased risk of infection, long-term health effects which are still poorly understood, and even potentially contributing to the deaths of our loved ones.

During the week of Nov.2-8, the county COVID-19 community indicators showed the number of new cases per day per 100,000 population in the red; the percentage of positive tests in the red; the new cases per investigator per day at critical capacity; the capacity to conduct contact monitoring at critical capacity; the number of calls placed to the COVID line in the red; and the number of hospitalized cases in the red.

At the time of this writing, Flathead County had the fourth highest number of active cases in Montana, and 14% of the county’s active cases were in Whitefish.

As deeply as we want our students to attend school together, in person, this is not the time to double the number of Whitefish students in the classroom. We can’t wish this health crisis away; we can only beat it by making decisions that minimize exposure and transmission. The faster our community, county and state act to reduce the number of new cases, the sooner we can have our children in school and be confident in a lower risk of transmission among our students, teachers and families.

I urge the Whitefish School Board to reconsider this decision.

Vita Wright, Whitefish