Robert Gehrke: Like all parents, I’m grappling with whether to send my kid to school

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a harder decision to make as a parent and I’m in the same boat as more than a million other Utahns: Are all the benefits of a good education worth the very real risk posed by COVID-19?

My 16-year-old son needs the structure of the classroom. Without it, the last quarter of the year turned into an extended summer vacation.

He’s not alone, and for some it was even worse. Back in April, one survey found 47% of public school students hadn’t logged in for a single online lesson since school buildings closed. A study last month estimated that the average student will end up losing seven months of academic progress, with Black and Hispanic students suffering greater losses.

Right now we don’t really know how widespread the virus is in the state because our testing has fallen by more than 25% over the past week, while our positive rate has climbed.

“If your testing is down but your rate of positives is up, it indicates you’re not testing enough people,” said Lindsay Keegan, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Utah, whereas if your test number drops and the rate of positives stays the same, you may just have fewer sick people.

Kids, generally speaking, would do better in school than not. And if it was that simple this wouldn’t be so hard. As parents we are being asked to make our kids a test case to see if, against the odds, we can pull this off.

The data is convincing that young people who get infected are far less likely to get severe cases and require hospitalization than older people — largely because they are healthier and have fewer underlying conditions.

Salt Lake County has reported nearly 2,900 cases in people under the age of 19. None of those have died and 29 have needed hospitalization. Since sports practices resumed in June in Salt Lake County, there have been seven COVID-19 outbreaks that infected 34 people, six of them in athletics settings.

Young people can, however, spread the disease.

“Many of the studies indicate that older children, middle school and high school students, are just as capable of transmitting infection as older adults,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, the head of infectious disease at the University of Utah. “I would also point out that I disagree with the conclusion that younger children are intrinsically less capable of transmitting the illness.”

One recent study found that young children shed as much viral RNA as older children and as much as 100 times as adults.

Socially distancing is ideal, but when my son’s school plan came out Saturday, it — like many others I saw — encouraged distancing when to the extent possible, “acknowledging that 6 feet of distance between desks [is] not feasible in most classrooms.”

Take Granger High School, a massive high school, 440,000 square feet, with 3,300 students. Even if 20% opt to go online you would have to remove almost all of the furniture and hold classes over every square inch of the building — in the gym, the auditorium, the lunch room, in the swimming pool, the faculty lounge, and in every hallway — and you still couldn’t keep 6 feet of space between students even before you add in teachers and staff.

Some of our schools with the greatest number of students are also in places where the ongoing COVID infections are alarmingly high — Granger and Hunter high schools in West Valley City and Cyprus High School in Magna.

Students will be put into classrooms in schools where social distancing is not possible and, statistically, at least a few students will have COVID. Over the weekend, The New York Times calculated that, in a Salt Lake County school with 500 students, three would likely have COVID. Double that for a school with 1,000. In Utah County, the estimate is seven students per 1,000.

The evidence is that masks help reduce transmission, but there’s a big difference between masking up for a quick trip to the grocery store and wearing one when people are in close proximity to one another in a confined space for six to seven hours a day.

The most frustrating part, for me, is the degree to which the state and school districts have disregarded the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their willingness to make compromises in the rush to open schools.

For example, Utah does not meet the criteria — two 14-day periods of flat or decreasing cases with stable or increased testing — to reopen schools.

“This is something that is completely ignored,” Swaminathan told me. “If you were to follow that strictly, schools that are closed should remain closed.”

Districts are shrugging at social distancing guidelines, failing to take into account the status of the virus in specific communities, and the state has invented a new “modified quarantine” — where students exposed but without symptoms can still go to school if their parents choose — that is basically not a quarantine at all.

“If children are asymptomatic spreaders, the concern is they’ll go to school, infect each other, go home and give it to their caregivers, take it to day care and it will facilitate spread by bringing it into more and more households,” Keegan said.

Some districts are being more cautious. Salt Lake City School District is at least starting the year online until it is safe to resume normal classes. Davis last week voted to go to a staggered schedule where students attend in person two days a week to accommodate distancing.

If more districts were being more cautious, the calculus might be different. As it stands, I agree with Swaminathan, who put it this way: “It’s basically an experiment whose outcome cannot be predicted.”

So on Saturday, after looking at our school’s plan, my son, his mom (who has a compromised immune system) and I decided he’ll be doing at least the first quarter online and he committed to doing a better job of focusing on the schoolwork.

It’s not ideal, but we’re fortunate to have the option (many do not) and for now it’s the best we can do, because we’re not willing to make our kid a guinea pig in the state’s experiment.