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LANDERS: A lot of what ifs in decision to reopen schools

LANDERS: A lot of what ifs in decision to reopen schools

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The Dells School Board has a tough choice to make. Open the schools back up or wait this pandemic out? I know all the board members, they are good people. It’s a thankless job being on a school board, so let me be at least one person to publicly offer my thanks to them.

As much as I respect our board and have great friendships with several of them, I do disagree with where they are heading. It seems they are leaning towards opening up the school this fall. That has started a strong debate in our community on whether or not the board is making the right decision. Some parents have no issues sending their kids back to school, while others may be petrified at the thought. Then there are many floating in the middle of those two emotions.

I guess the question I pose to the board is what if? What if kids return and the virus mutates or proves to be more dangerous to kids than expected? What if our bus drivers, who we have very, very few of, get sick? What if our custodians, aids, and cooks fall ill? And yes, what if an outbreak impacts our teachers? School Board member Erik Backhaus, a fellow 1989 WDHS grad I might add, offered some compelling stats to the impact of the virus on children in support of opening up. What I caution about using those stats to determine opening up the school is two-fold. First, the health and safety of the adults in the school also needs to be strongly considered. Second, we are merely four months into this pandemic, and research is still too early to know the true impact of the virus on children.

According to a newly released national map of COVID-19 risk potential by Georgia Tech University and the Applied Bioinformatics Laboratory, and using Columbia County at the time of this writing, there is certainly going to be virus present in our schools.

According to the data, a group setting of 10 people would have a 7% chance of virus contact. Increase that to a classroom or hallway size of 25 people and that increases to 16%.

Go to the school library or playground with at least 50 people, 29% chance of contact with the virus. Head to the lunchroom with at least 100 people and that number rises to 51%. But if you take the whole population of a school with kids, faculty, staff, etc. which could be around 500, and you have a 97% chance of coming into contact with the virus. If the virus numbers continue to rise, so will these percentages.

Another important statistic not being discussed is the percentage of our students on free and reduced lunch, which has held firmly over 50% for years. That means that 1 out of every 2 students in our district comes from a family in poverty or financial need. Re-opening the schools could cause a serious impact to a student’s family should the virus be acquired and spread by the student to their family. Many of our workers in the Dells do not get paid sick leave, health insurance, or have means to pay for medical care, adding to my concern of the overall health and well-being of our community’s most under-served.

The board must recognize the growing number of families of color who statistically have shown to be four times likely of developing serious complications from COVID-19 according to the CDC.

For our fellow neighbors and students of color, the virus presents an increased health risk and financial hardship that needs to be factored into the board’s decision. Yet I have heard no public comment about this specific concern.

I am not trying to spread more paranoia about this issue, but I am purely stating the facts that balance those printed as an argument to open up. With all due respect to my fellow WDHS alum and friend, there are more stats to consider beyond those of preliminary numbers of the impact of the virus in four months on children.

Trust me, I know about preliminary stats and projections. After all, I am a Bears fan and have suffered through about 30 quarterbacks over the past 30 years that were preliminary supposed to be good. Look how that has turned out!

I don’t envy the board. I understand the impact on keeping the kids out of the school. The academic, intellectual, social, and cultural impact. The impact on parents with childcare issues and learning from home if kids are not in school. I get it that the same kids of poverty I worry about most often get their meals, support, and escape through their presence in our schools. But what if? What if opening the schools too early is the wrong decision?

What if people get sick from this decision? What if it the virus does lead to impacting children more?

What if schools are forced to close suddenly all over again and for longer? These are the what if’s we voted our board to consider and make the right decisions.

It’s too early to think we know all there is to know about the virus and gamble with the lives of our students and teachers. Keeping the schools closed will be a huge inconvenience, but it is the responsible thing to do.

Brian Landers is a former Dells mayor and writes a weekly column for the Events. You can reach him at

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