Beyond “Safetyism” And Surveillance: COVID-19 and Reopening Vermont’s Public Schools (OP/ED)

By: Aimee Stephenson


In a recent communication from a Vermont superintendent to the school community, the superintendent describes the challenges districts are facing to reopen their schools in the fall. 

School districts across the state all have published plans that they cannot guarantee they can staff, and even if by some miracle one can, it is highly unlikely they will be able to sustain it. Childcare for all families AND school employees is a huge problem that crosses many district geographical boundaries. This is a significant statewide problem in need of a significant statewide solution made by those that have the authority to do so, at the top of the food chain, not individual community administrators and local school boards. 

While I can completely understand it is human nature to want someone else to take the reins when you are facing such onerous demands, this is a completely astonishing about-face in a state where local control has dominated the K-12 public school system since inception. The answer here does not lie in turning to big government to create a top-down, one size-fits-all “solution.”  You’d think if there was one lesson from the last several months it would be the delusion and destruction of this approach. 

No, we do not need the government telling us what we can and can’t do anymore and micromanaging every aspect of our lives down to our very next breath. Rather, what we desperately need is for our school leaders to step off the hamster wheel, catch their breaths, and do what they do best. Instead of taking on the herculean task of remodeling our schools over the next five weeks in what will no doubt result in an epic fail for all, Vermonters need to seize local control, bolster courage in their superintendents, and demand our schools reopen to a normal school experience. (I wonder if 20 V.S.A. § 13 is a way for cities and towns to terminate the Governor’s state of emergency orders…at least locally? It might be worth looking into.)

Not only is there good evidence for a return to normal in schools, but on the flip side of the equation, no one has sufficient evidence as to the efficacy of the guidelines the CDC and government are trying to force schools to adhere to. We need to stop conducting this grand and pointless experiment to the detriment of our children. The unintended and harmful impacts of large-scale implementation of non-pharmaceutical measures such as overly sanitized environments, social distancing, and cloth face masks are entirely unknown at this point not to speak of the undue burden of implementing these intrusive measures in school settings.

In addition to the insurmountable logistics of reopening under the current guidelines, schools are being asked to take responsibility for the health of students, families, and their employees. While schools tend to be relatively safe places, it is absurd and unreasonable to ask them to guarantee health and safety. Life is a series of risks and probabilities that schools and central planning cannot mitigate to the point of absolute safety. 

More children die every year from accidents suffered from youth sports than have died of COVID-19. Should we ban youth sports? Obviously not, but we also shouldn’t prevent children from enjoying a normal school experience when data from the pandemic clearly demonstrate they are the least at risk, if at all, of suffering detrimental effects from COVID and are also unlikely to pass SARS-CoV-2 on to adults. We need to stop letting fear dictate the reopening of schools. There is too much at stake, both in terms of ample evidence that keeping children at home creates myriad negative impacts, but also the workforce and childcare issues that are not being considered in equal measure.


I would further argue that letting students return to school under normal conditions is important for developing herd immunity (see Johns Hopkins University definition above) to protect vulnerable populations from COVID-19. Natural herd immunity is how humans have survived viruses up to this point. Vaccines are only relatively new advances. The thought that we have to wait for a vaccine to establish herd immunity before we can safely send children to school is an absurd idea born from fear and our human arrogance that we can dominate the natural world by declaring “war” on a virus.

And as far as viruses go, this one turns out to be not so novel. Two recent, independent studies on T cell immunity both revealed surprise findings in their control groups. For those not experienced with scientific studies, suffice it to say the “control group” is typically the negative result you are contrasting with your positive result. In both studies, researchers found T cells reactive to SARS-CoV-2 in 30% and 50% of the control groups, which came from individuals with no history of SARS, COVID-19 or contact with SARS/COVID-19 patients.

You might ask, how then do these individuals have T cells reactive to SARS-CoV-2? The obvious implication is exposure to seasonal common cold coronaviruses confers some degree of cross-reactivity to SARS-CoV-2. We also know from the CDC and other sources that 40% of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, meaning the individual never develops symptoms or gets sick. This is actually good news. To extrapolate, if 30-50% of the population possibly have immunity vis-à-vis T cells, then it would make sense that 40% never get sick from the virus. The common-sense view is that exposure to things that are similar, such as common cold viruses, provides some degree of protection against COVID-19. 

It is ridiculous the national media has turned to reporting soaring case numbers without putting these data in the proper context of increased testing, 40% asymptomatic cases, and an overall decrease in deaths (yes, still decreasing) in the same time period. Never have we conducted such widespread testing on healthy, asymptomatic adults as we have with current contact tracing efforts. Could we simply be discovering our coexistence with viruses is more pervasive than originally thought? 

In any other scenario, if a subset of the population was exposed to the virus but never got sick, we would herald their immunity instead of demonizing them as thoughtless and dangerous vectors of disease. To put COVID-19 deaths in perspective, a recent Johns Hopkins study cites more than 250,000 people in the U.S. die every year from medical errors. Clearly, going to the doctor is risky business but we don’t declare “war” on doctors, lockdown the population, and destroy our economy in response. 

Where did this idea come from that governments and schools are responsible for ameliorating all risk for all people with regard to COVID-19? Getting in our cars every day carries a risk, but it is a choice we make because the tradeoffs are worth it. We don’t ask government to outlaw cars because there is a risk of dying in car accidents. Everyone should have the right to balance risks and benefits in relation to their own quality of life. 

The flu is clearly a dangerous virus, but the reason we don’t see more deaths every year from flu, or pandemics like in 1918 for that matter, is because of herd immunity. I would argue it is paramount for the young and healthy to acquire COVID-19 immunity. To be clear, when advocating for herd immunity I am not suggesting we let the pandemic rip. Rather, we should continue to shield those most at risk through continued social distancing and isolation while allowing younger individuals without underlying health conditions to create their own personal roadblock to the virus. Not only will their immunity improve, but they will be an important link in the chain of protection for the vulnerable in our communities.

To summarize, we know there is some baseline immunity in the population. We know the majority of COVID-19 deaths are in older people and 93% of all COVID-19 deaths are in people with, on average, 2.5 chronic health conditions – very sick people. We know SARS-CoV-2 is not a threat to those under 50 who are healthy, especially children. Most importantly, 99.7% of all people who get COVID actually recover. You don’t hear that statistic in the news, do you?

Vermonters need to stop pandering to the self-serving interests of government and an irresponsible media whose stories of tragic one-off cases and gross misrepresentation of statistics is only feeding their insatiable 24-hour news cycle while whipping people into an irrational state of fear and mass hysteria. Fear-based decisions are bad decisions that don’t serve anyone.

Schools are not furthering their missions by catering to the irrational fears of media’s devout converts who use bullying tactics to say you are trying to murder their grandmother if you don’t agree with them. This collective sense of contamination and sin is both highly puritanical and misguided. I feel I am living in some sort of dystopian McCarthyism nightmare, but lest not forget that prior to March 18th at least, we lived in America where individuals were free to choose. 

For those Vermonters with children who are not well or who want to hide at home until there is a vaccine, your clear school choice is the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC), an entirely remote instruction option for grades 6-12 that is now a partner with all K-12 public schools. And for teachers who do not wish to return to the physical classroom, VTVLC is looking for teachers too! But please allow the rest of us to make the choice to return to normal life.

Some European countries never closed their schools and didn’t suffer detrimental impacts. For children and schools, the less invasive and effective strategies of washing hands, covering coughs/sneezes, and staying home when you are sick make much more sense. If anything, schools should be looking at strategies for relieving the pressure students feel to be in school when sick, whether it be due to the fear of falling behind or a parent who cannot miss work because they need to stay home with a sick child. What can we do for students and parents who find themselves in these predicaments? 


Aimee Stephenson, from Burlington, holds a PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from UVM (2001)

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