Dr. Bjorn Mercer


By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

This is the second of a five-part series examining the difficulties of reopening brick-and-mortar schools in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Part I, we looked at the CDC data for COVID-19 in relation to school-age children and teachers and staff. Now we will look at the complicating factors related to COVID-19 and K-12 education.

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Race/Ethnicity Data Regarding COVID-19

To complicate COVID-19 and the cases and death rates by age, as seen in Part I, there is the race and ethnicity factor to consider. It would seem that because COVID-19 is a virus, it would not matter what race or ethnicity is vulnerable. But as with the complexity of being human and the economic disparities among the races and ethnicities in the U.S., being black and being American Indian or Alaska Native puts these groups at higher risk of death from COVID-19.

COVID-19 Related Deaths by Race/Ethnicity versus Percent of U.S. Population:

  • 8% of deaths are American Indian/Alaska Native versus 1.5% of the U.S. population
  • 6% of deaths are multiple race/ethnicity versus 2.7% of the U.S. population
  • 1% of deaths are Asian versus 5.9% of the U.S. population
  • 17% of deaths are Hispanic/Latino versus 18.3 of the U.S. population
  • 5% of deaths are Black versus 13.4% of the U.S. population
  • 1% of the deaths are White versus 60.4% of the U.S. population

Although the greater number of deaths in the Black or Native American populations have not been adequately addressed, these data points should be taken into consideration in future health care planning for minority communities, especially for teachers.

Gallup Poll Finds Mixed Results about Returning to School

In a Gallup poll asking parents if they want their children to return to school this year, according to a late-May/early-June polling, 56% said yes and 44% said they wanted part-time, in-person instruction with some distance learning, or all distance learning. When this same poll was taken again in mid-July, 36% wanted full-time, in-person instruction while 66% wanted part-time, in-person with some distance learning or all distance learning.

This statistically significant change in preference occurred because most people thought COVID-19 would be gone when the weather turned hot. But as we have seen, the pandemic was still with us and dangerous as of late August.

Additional Complications to COVID-19

In addition to the number of cases and deaths caused by COVID-19, around 80% of those who get the virus do not need hospitalization. Also, 40% of those who come down with COVID-19 show no symptoms at all, but can still pass on the virus to others.

This possibility of infecting others is then complicated by the types of COVID-19 symptoms that people experience and the fact that for some people, the symptoms can linger for months. The CDC recently reported that among those who had COVID-19 and were later discharged from the hospital, “44 percent reported a worse quality of life following discharge, compared to life before COVID-19.”

Questions Remain as to Whether to Open Schools

There are brilliant people studying and analyzing COVID-19 data all around the world. There are also competent and intelligent politicians and school administrators trying to make the best possible decisions when it comes to school reopenings. Because the risks to children in the 5-17 age group are minimal, opening K-12 schools seems like a good idea on the surface.

But when you add in the risks to teachers and staff and the possibility of students, teachers, and staff potentially infecting elderly relatives, the risks of this highly infectious disease are real.

This leads us to questions that school districts need to answer before they reopen schools for in-person instruction:

  • How many children, teachers and staff members would have to die before moving to online learning? What is an acceptable casualty rate?
  • If a child, teacher or staff member dies after contracting COVID-19 at the school, is the school district liable?
  • If the relative of a child, teacher or staff member dies after they have gone back to school, is the school district liable?
  • Is the district liable for any medical bills that students, teachers or staff members may accrue due to exposure to COVID-19 while in school?
  • If school funding is an issue, why not just change the rules for in-person versus online education?
  • If a school district goes bankrupt because of litigation, will the county or state bail it out?

Although these questions are difficult to consider, they are the questions that schools have to grapple with if they are going to reopen. Although the chance of a student dying is very small, the death of a child from going back to school is still preventable. The death of a teacher or staff member who went back to work is also preventable, and the risks associated with the 50-65 age group are real.

In Part III, we will review problems in higher education over the last few decades.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.