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10 reasons why New Trier can open up to more students immediately

The New Trier Board of Education is contemplating a delay in the implementation of its 50-percent hybrid plan until January 26, 2021. The board most recently had the week of Dec. 7 as a potential date for expansion, but that date was revisited in the last special board meeting held last week.

The board offered no compelling New Trier-specific reason for a delay, only fears of a post-Thanksgiving surge in the pandemic. In fact, all the science and data point to the opposite conclusion: that schools can and should reopen more without delay.

Fortunately, the board has a follow-up meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 1 (6-8 p.m., Room C234 at the Northfield campus) to continue the reopening debate. Public comments can be made in person and we welcome you to share your thoughts with the board. Click here for meeting details and here for a video link if you can’t join in person.

Below we present 10 reasons why the district can open up to more students – with teachers physically in the classroom – straight away. We urge the board to consider the facts below and immediately implement the 50-percent hybrid plan, with the ultimate goal of getting even more students and teachers into the classroom early next year.

1. Current survivability rates for children overwhelmingly support reopening schools more.

In all of Illinois since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been eight deaths out of 102,000 reported cases for those aged 20 and under. That’s a survivability rate of 99.992%. The CDC, which adds in an estimate of asymptomatic cases that have gone unreported, puts the survivability at 99.997% for those under the age of 20.

2. Current survivability rates for teacher-aged adults overwhelmingly supports reopening schools. In all of Illinois, there have been 578 deaths out of 365,000 cases for adults aged 20-49. That’s a survivability rate of 99.84%. The CDC, which adds in an estimate of asymptomatic cases that have gone unreported, puts the survivability at 99.98% for those between the ages of 20 and 49 (see graphic in number 1 above). Nearly 70% of New Trier teachers are under age 50.

3. No significant evidence of transmission in schools. Studies internationally and within the U.S. fail to point to significant virus transmissibility in school settings. UNICEF recently concluded: “Schools are not a main driver of community transmission, and children are more likely to get the virus outside of school settings.” A broad array of sources has reported the same:

4. Risk of transmission is cut with NT’s $1.3 million screening program. New Trier has implemented a $1.3 million saliva screening test precisely to make our schools more safe. As of the time of this writing, only a handful of other districts have made such a taxpayer-funded expenditure. The measure comes on top of the already proven precautions for making New Trier safe for re-opening.

The district administration reports that:

  • The screening process helps ensure infected students and staff never even make it into the classroom.

  • For the two weeks that have been reported, no staff member has tested positive.

  • The overall positivity of the test in the first week reported was 0.76%. The second week was 0.41%.

The implementation of the screening test means the Reopening Advisory Board, a select group who advises the board on COVID-19 policy, can diminish the weight of other metrics, such as the current level of statewide or community spread, on its reopening plans. The power and effectiveness of the screening program will keep the virus out of schools regardless of what is happening in the community.

5. NT campuses are nowhere near “capacity” limits under COVID mitigations. The board’s recently published attendance data shows New Trier has been running at 17 to 19 percent capacity over the past six weeks, not the 25 percent that’s been expected. Many classes are reported to have just two to five students in attendance.

That means the district could go to a 50-percent hybrid immediately and yet it would only be at some 35 to 40 percent full. That is far below the 50 percent capacity limits administrators have recently set.

Capacity, if and when it does become a concern, can be improved by utilizing all kinds of other spaces – the district’s gyms, auditoriums, etc. – that can help maintain social distancing.

6. Both sides of the aisle are moving toward opening schools more. Many in the NT community claim supporters of reopening are politicizing the issue, but that’s just not true. Both sides of the aisle now strongly favor open schools, and both recognize the danger of closed schools. In the past three weeks alone, the CDC, UNICEF, The New York Times Editorial Board and Chicago Public Schools have reiterated the need for school openings.

And CNN has just reported that the New York Public Schools will reopen elementary schools on Dec. 7. "The unparalleled value of in-person learning for students has been evident in the first few months of school, and we will do everything we can to keep our schools safe and keep them open for the duration of this pandemic," Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza said in a statement.

7. A vast majority of New Trier teachers are at low risk from COVID-19. Nearly 70 percent of New Trier teachers are under the age of 50. And 60 percent are under the age of 40. That means as a group they’re at far less risk from COVID-19 – the CDC says ages 20-49 have a survival rate of 99.98 percent.

8. Teachers who need accommodations can utilize the district’s generous sick leave policy already negotiated with the teachers union. Teachers in the classroom are key to making in-person learning work. Fortunately, the district provides a very generous sick leave policy designed to support teachers who do require accommodations. According to the 2019-2023 New Trier Education Association agreement, new teachers automatically receive 180 sick days (one year’s worth of teaching days) upon joining the district. And each year, teachers receive an additional 14 new sick days. In total, teachers can accumulate up to 360 unused sick days over their career. The precise language from the teachers contract is in the appendix.

Teachers have more than enough days to help them through the pandemic. Based on a FOIA provided by the district, 99 percent of teachers have 100 days or more of sick leave saved up. Teachers who can’t be in the classroom during the pandemic should utilize the district’s generous sick leave policy, allowing the district to hire certified substitute teachers who can be in the classroom.

9. Lockdowns and school closings hurt lives and livelihoods. Unnecessary lockdowns and school closures have unfortunately led to worse outcomes for both current and future generations. The damage done to the people on the other side of the ledger – deaths of despair, missed diagnoses, etc. – have been enormous:

  • “Deaths of despair”: The Well Being Trust estimates 75,000 additional deaths due to drug or alcohol abuse or suicide will occur as a result of the pandemic, including the lockdowns, according to CBS News.

  • Cancelation of nonessential hospital care: The CDC estimates 93,814 non-COVID “excess deaths” this year, including 42,427 from cardiovascular conditions, 10,686 from diabetes, and 3,646 from cancer – many of these were caused by the cancellation of “nonessential” care in the midst of the COVID panic.

  • Deaths due to missed diagnoses: Missed screenings and other pandemic-related impacts on care could result in about 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colon cancer alone over the next 10 years, the National Cancer Institute projected earlier this year. The article says that estimate now appears low.

  • Rise in suicidal thoughts: From the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the CDC: Percentage of those aged of 18 and 25 that considered suicide in the past year: 6.8% - 11% last year; Percentage of those aged of 18 and 25 that considered suicide in the past 30 days: 25.5% this year. (Suicide is the 10th-most common leading cause of death in the U.S.)

The harm of closings and lockdowns goes beyond lives lost. Publications from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal have exposed the damage done to businesses, jobs and children’s education and the particularly negative impact on minorities.

10. Other nearby school districts continue to be open 50 percent or more. Other nearby schools and districts continue to remain open in the midst of the statewide surge in cases. Loyola Academy has maintained its 50 percent reopen plan. Sears continues to have all students in class every day, with an online-only option provided for those that need it. And the overwhelming majority of Catholic schools within the Chicago Archdiocese continue to be open fully on a daily basis.

The good news is that none are reporting in-school transmissions, and they don’t even have the robust testing available to New Trier thanks to its saliva screening test.

In summary

The potential delay of a broader reopening is frustrating and it fails the kids, families and the taxpayers of New Trier. New Trier is a destination school district because of the quality education it offers its students. It has served as a model of what public education can deliver for generations.

It’s time for New Trier to demonstrate leadership in the face of this health crisis with innovative thinking, evidence-based decision-making and courage.

At minimum, the board’s goal should be to move quickly to the 50-percent hybrid plan. But the data also supports the option of even more in-person learning. Everything points to getting more kids and teachers back into NT classrooms, where learning happens best.

Appendix - New Trier Teachers’ Contract

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