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​Why are we risking our kids?

Editorial | August 19th, 2021

By Alicia Underlee Nelson

alicia@hpr1.com

A plea for transparency in public schools

There are more active COVID-19 cases in North Dakota right now than there have been since April 2021. And the number is rising.

Even though COVID case numbers are increasing and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend universal masking for all K-12 students, faculty and staff, thousands of kids in North Dakota and western Minnesota will head back to school with no mask mandates and no plan for contact tracing in place. (Fargo Public Schools is a notable exception.) That number includes 100% of students under the age of 12, who cannot be vaccinated.

Older kids and adults in North Dakota are not well protected by vaccines either. According to an August 17 release from the North Dakota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 26.2% of eligible adolescents in the state are partially vaccinated and 20.7% are fully vaccinated. Slightly over half of North Dakota residents (50.6%) are partially vaccinated and 47.1% are fully vaccinated.

The North Dakota Department of Health reported 1,101 active cases of COVID-19 in North Dakota on August 16, the most recent data available at press time. That’s up from 555 cases two weeks ago on August 3. Complete statistics are available at health.nd.gov.

Almost a quarter of these cases are children, including 63 kids aged 0-5 and 74 between 6 and 11. Another 28 cases are kids between 12 and 14 years old. An additional 72 cases are teenagers aged 15 to 19.

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"PARENTS WANT TO KNOW WHY THE NDCDE ONLINE OPTION ISN’T BEING PRESENTED TO NORTH DAKOTA FAMILIES AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO IN-PERSON SCHOOLING.”

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The World Health Organization recommends safety measures like masking whenever the positivity rate is over 5%. North Dakota’s positivity rate was 7.59% as this article went to press. The CDC COVID Data Tracker (found at covid.cdc.gov) reports high levels of community spread in several of North Dakota’s most populous counties, including Cass, Burleigh, and Morton. Community spread is “substantial” (the second highest level) in Grand Forks County and Clay and Polk Counties across the Minnesota state line.

There are just 17 staffed ICU beds open in North Dakota. No ICU beds are available in Bismarck and just 12 are open in Fargo (including 3 within the VA system), according to the August 16 update on datawrapper.dwcdn.net. This shortage is as bad as it was during late 2020, when North Dakota COVID numbers soared.

Today’s North Dakota AAP report reminds us that tens of thousands of our neighbors -- including children legally required to attend school -- are not protected by vaccines. Rising COVID case numbers, high rates of community spread and a low number of staffed ICU beds put them all at increased risk.

The recommendations from public health experts are explicit and clear. Masking and contact tracing are part of a multi-layered approach that keeps kids as safe as possible so they can learn in person. It also helps protect their unvaccinated friends and family until they can get their shots.

So why aren't public schools listening to the experts? Why are they dropping precautions at every moment when the more contagious Delta variant is taking off? Why are schools removing protections like masks and contact tracing when the number of new COVID cases among children in the U.S. has been increasing since early July?

This nationwide increase in childhood COVID diagnoses is troubling, since most of the nation’s schoolchildren weren’t attending in-person classes in July and early August. “Children and COVID-19: State Data Report,” a joint report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, was released on August 12. It reports that 14.4% of all cumulative COVID cases occurred in children. Children represented 121,427 (or 18%) of all COVID cases diagnosed between August 5 and August 12. The week before, 93,824 cases (15% of the week’s total) were diagnosed in children. That’s up from 71,726 cases (19% of all cases) the week before that.

Like many parents in school districts across our region, I wanted answers. I called and emailed administrators, teachers, parents, public health officials and school board members in West Fargo and the greater Fargo-Moorhead area. I was confident I could get someone to explain why they were risking students’ health at this particular juncture. If schools rightly require entire classrooms to change their behavior to accommodate a single child’s allergy and to keep that child out of the hospital, I assumed they would take additional protective actions to keep all students safe. I hoped there was a plan at work that I wasn’t seeing, a reason for silence rooted in something other than political and peer pressure.

I happen to have a very specific skill set that should have made finding answers a little easier. I’m a journalist, nonfiction author and travel writer who, like many Americans, made a mid-pandemic career pivot to work as an advertising rep for this very paper. (It turns out it’s hard to be a full-time travel writer when you can’t actually travel.) I’m used to tracking down sources, mining spreadsheets and picking through reports.

I figured I’d take a few statements, outline how select school districts would move forward and pass those facts and new contacts on to my editor so she could write this article. Instead, I’m writing this story (and speaking to you in an increasingly frank and conversational tone) because that simply didn’t happen.

The vast majority of my queries went unanswered. (This may be at least partially because I’m new to the public health and education beat and teacher training is in session.) The people I did correspond with were well aware of the spread of COVID-19 in Cass County and knowledgeable about the multi-layered coronavirus prevention strategy recommended by infectious disease experts, medical professionals and public health entities. They all admitted this topic was hotly debated.

Here’s what they couldn’t tell me. No one could explain why masks and contact tracing -- parts of the very disease prevention system they admitted worked as recently as last spring -- have been dropped from their school’s 2021-2022 COVID prevention strategy and when and if these measures will be reinstated. One individual with decision-making power said they would require masks if Cass Public Health passed a mask mandate, despite the fact that it’s unclear whether HB 1323 (approved by the North Dakota legislature in April) actually allows Fargo Cass Public Health to take such an action. I couldn’t get a single person to speak on the record.

This isn’t how researching a story normally works. After a week of research and interviews, I only had more questions. Lots of other people in the region did too.

That’s because the decision to leave thousands of unvaccinated kids under-protected doesn’t just affect children and families. It affects anyone who might need a hospital bed for any reason. (That’s all of us, knock on wood.) It affects people with unvaccinated loved ones (again, pretty much all of us), as well as folks with friends, family members, colleagues or employees that may be called away from their jobs or responsibilities to care for sick children or to isolate with kids who have been exposed to COVID at school. It affects medically vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated and those who face greater risks of serious illness even if they’ve had their shots. Some of those medically vulnerable people are children themselves.

I’ve been listening and taking notes for days. People wonder why school officials are only observing certain parts of the layered COVID prevention approach recommended by public health organizations when it’s designed to be implemented as a whole. They want to know if (and when) school districts will provide a clear plan for dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks during the school year. Taxpayers are curious about how their tax dollars are being spent. Parents want to know why the NDCDE online option isn’t being presented to North Dakota families as an alternative to in-person schooling.

If schools won’t provide contact tracing, how will parents know when (or if) it’s safe to send kids to school? Will schools switch back to distance learning if cases increase? How will anyone even know if there’s an outbreak in school if the schools aren’t tracing new diagnoses? Parents, day-care providers and business owners need to start planning for all alternative scenarios immediately and answers aren’t forthcoming.

If our hospitals are already filling up, why aren’t public schools doing everything they can to prevent unvaccinated kids from getting sick and spreading disease to their unvaccinated family and friends? If a child gets COVID and needs to be cared for at home or is hospitalized, how many school days will they be allowed to miss before they’re considered truant? How will kids with COVID (and children with ongoing physical and mental challenges due to long COVID) learn as they recover? How will our community help working parents who must choose between staying at home with a sick child and losing their job? If a child is forced to attend school in person and contracts COVID, can families sue?

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“THERE ARE JUST 17 STAFFED I.C.U. BEDS OPEN IN NORTH DAKOTA.”

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These might seem like rhetorical questions, since a small number of kids (between .1% and 1.9%, according to the AAP) require hospitalization. But as the numbers increase, hospitalizations do too. As I write these words, 237 kids have COVID in North Dakota. Even if we pick a percentage that falls somewhere in between these numbers (say, 1%), that still means it’s probable that the families of two children will wrestle with these questions.

We can’t help what we don’t know. But you’ve read this far, so none of us can claim ignorance. We don’t get the luxury of wringing our hands and being shocked that our community’s kids are hospitalized and families are suffering. But we can at least try to prevent it.

If there are questions that are burning inside of you, or a relevant perspective that only you can share, do something. Respectfully ask your school board members, local principals and the superintendent to answer your questions. Share your concerns. Their contact info is public and it will be listed on your school district’s website.

School starts in just a few days, but there’s still time to make a difference. Your voice will be most useful in your home school district. But viruses don’t respect state lines or the borders between school districts, so this is a regional issue now, whether we like it or not.

Remember when our English and history teachers assigned novels and real-life accounts of people who helped save lives? Remember how we wrote papers and had passionate discussions about how, when the moment came, we’d take action to help someone who needed us? That moment is right now. Let’s be people our younger selves would be proud of.

I’m not speaking to you as a journalist. I’m speaking to you as the mother of a child who is too young to be vaccinated, and as a member of this community who just wants as many of us as possible to be alive at the end of this pandemic. I am willingly setting my journalistic objectivity aside because I just can’t be objective about people dying. There is no upside to losing people we love -- especially when we have the tools to prevent it.

If data, medical experts and COVID survivors haven’t convinced you that masks or contact tracing are necessary, I don’t delude myself that I will sway you. But I do want to thank you for reading this far. Analyzing data and considering other points of view requires focus and curiosity, even if you choose to refute what you observe. I know you want the best for our kids and our community, just like I do.

I envy your assurance. I don’t want the virus to multiply in the way that data and the lived experiences of people around the world predict that it will. It would be great if our community were the exception to the statistical rule. But while that’s possible, it’s not probable.

If you’re right, and the virus is fake news and masks don’t matter, then the worst thing that happens is kids have to wear masks and schools have to contact-trace for a few weeks longer than necessary. If you’re right, kids are inconvenienced. If the experts are right, kids die. These two outcomes are not equal.

That’s why we should do all we can to prevent the latter. Helping too much for too long is better than doing nothing. And it’s certainly better than rationalizing that hospitalized or deceased children are an unfortunate price to pay for economic recovery or getting back to normal. Even villains don’t say that part out loud.

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UPDATE:

On August 19, Fargo Cass Public Health released a statement regarding health officers’ ability to issue or enact mask mandates that would apply to North Dakota public schools.

“Fargo Cass Public Health is unable to enact a mask mandate,” said Justin Bohrer, Public Health Analyst at Fargo Cass Public Health.“The governing body is the only one that can do that. The governing body for Fargo Cass Public Health is the Fargo City Commission. Fargo Cass Public Health can recommend mitigation measures, including masking, but the Fargo City Commissioners are the ones that would need to take action on a mask mandate.”

For additional information, please read "Fargo Cass Public Health cannot issue or enact a mask mandate," in the NEWS section.

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