In this week’s episode we speak with public school teacher Rebecca Martinson on why she won’t risk the health and safety of her family by going back into live classroom teaching.
Jeffrey Freedman: Hello and welcome to the RP HealthCast, by Rooney Partners. I am your host Jeffrey Freedman. Well, the start of a new school year is upon us and what normally is a very exciting time for parents and children. This year it is now clouded with fear and confusion. You see going back into the classroom this year, it is still uncertain in most districts, and with massive disruptions, the pandemic is causing. There is no telling what that return will look like or when. As can be seen all over the media this past couple of weeks, there is a heated debate raging over the reopening of the schools. On the one side, it is about the safety of our children and their teachers. On the other side, you have the need for families to put their children back into school for the socialization and standardized education and to allow the parents to do their own work as well. Some schools have decided to move ahead with live in-person learning. Just a closer week or so later, due to large positive COVID cases, and some universities that started the year with live teaching just one or two weeks later closed and sent their students back home for online-only learning. Also, six months into the pandemic, were just now learning how efficiently children can spread the coronavirus. A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics stated that infected children have at least as much of the coronavirus in their nose and throats as infected adults. Sadly, news this week, the passing of one of the youngest COVID patients a six-year-old in, Florida. To further shed light on this topic, and to offer her own perspective, We have as our guest this week Rebecca Martinson. Rebecca is a public school teacher from Washington State. She recently had an opinion piece published in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. For the past nine years, Rebecca has taught at the Northwest Career and Technical Academy the NCTA, in Mount Vernon, Washington. Rebecca, thank you for joining the RP HealthCast.
Rebecca Martinson: Oh, thanks for having me.
Jeffrey: Great. Let us start by having you tell us a little bit about NCTA. What is the mission, and shed some insight into the composition of the student body there?
Rebecca: Well, NCTA, we are operating in our 11th year. It is a skill center on the East Coast. They think they are often called technical or tech centers. What we do is that is a really unique and really necessary High School experience. We take Juniors and Seniors in high school. We take them away from their comprehensive or their regular high school for half a day. We teach them on a career centered path where they earn some of their high school credits and they earn some college credits. They really get kind of a foot or maybe just a toe in the door of their chosen field. So, I teach a class applied to medical science, which is an intro to the nursing class.
Jeffrey: That is interesting. I know in New York state we have a BOCES and so is NCTA a part of the public school system, and is it like a BOCES?
Rebecca: It is. We have 11 skill centers in Washington state and we are part of the public school system. So, I am a public school teacher.
Jeffrey: Got it. Now, you said, you teach nursing. Are you a trained nurse?
Rebecca: I am. That is my career as a nurse with the local hospital system, to become a public school teacher. I teach, again, some foundational medical stuff along with technical English lab science and we call it AskEd other places call it CTE Career and Technical Education, which is a graduation requirement of Washington.
Jeffrey: So, having a Nursing degree and your nurse training, it definitely forms your view, of the coronavirus as it relates to school re-openings, right? You have a little better understanding from a medical side as to what is going on. Now, I would like to read to our listeners the opening of your New York Times opinion column, and this is what you wrote, ” Every day when I walk into work as a public school teacher, I am prepared to take a bullet to save a child. In the age of school shootings, that is what the job requires.
But asking me to return to the classroom amid a pandemic and expose myself and my family to COVID-19 is like asking me to take that bullet home to my family. I will not do it and you should not want me to.” That was the quote and to me, that is so powerful. I also know from speaking to friends and family and reading all about this. I know your words and your feelings are being expressed by thousands of other teachers across the country.
What is your school administration’s plan for the fall?
Rebecca: Our plan actually has just solidified this week. I do not know, not being from Washington, probably not aware Governor Inslee and the superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Riddell, came out yesterday, with some guidelines for in-person learning. They are pretty strict, which is not surprising. Just last week, my school district made the call to do all remote learning at least to start with because our area is experiencing a significant uptick in transmission rate. Since I wrote the article in the time since then, my district has made the decision to go all remote. There are many districts in the state that still have not made that call. Of course, there are districts around this country with kids in class right now. It does not seem to be going really well.
Jeffrey: No, I mean we just spoke a second ago of the podcast about CNN having the image of a school in Georgia of just packed always, right? Everything that we are hearing about social distancing, wear a mask, it is not followed. They can not be followed in schools. Good for your school district, on the remote learning and unfortunately, mine is not there coming up with an in-person view. But, what has your experience been with remote teaching, how has that worked out before the initial close out?
Rebecca: Right. So, I think about it is really important to acknowledge the difference between what we did in March and what we did in June and what we are coming up within August. In March, I had one day to get out of my classroom and to stayed up at home. I had a day. So this was crisis management mode of how are we going to feed these kids, keep them safe, and try to teach something. The emphasis was on keeping children safe, as one would think would always be the emphasis. I am pretty tech-literate, I got right to work, produced a lot of content. Kids were getting mixed messages. So in the beginning, I did not have very much consistent contact with kids, which improved over time. Now, we graduated from this group in June. I took on a summer school group. This time, I had some time to prepare. This time I knew it was going to be all remote in advance. This time I think we delivered really high-quality content. Now, is it as good as face-to-face? I would say, it is not as good as face-to-face, was a year ago, but that face-to-face does not exist right now. There is no way to safely have that exists.
Jeffrey: Agreed. But, that being said, as of last week, even the Centers for Disease Control and prevention the CDC has shifted its position on the school rules. They said, and quote, “The new guidelines open with the discussion that played up the benefits of having children in school and play down the potential health risks” according to the New York Times. So what do you make of the CDC’s revised guidance now?
Rebecca: Well, really a couple of things. I think we go down a really dark path when our Public Health officials are being scolded and coerced. I feel like coerce might be a strong word. But when pressure is being applied to Public Health officials to change or alter their guidance based on political will. Now, the second point that I would make is if you really dig into that CDC guidance beyond the headlines, it does say that in areas with the uncontrolled transmission, which is a great deal of the countries right now, that in-person face-to-face learning is not appropriate. That has not been getting a lot of air time but it is there.
Jeffrey: Okay. As you are seeing and they are taking advantage of that Washington State in your District, which is great.
Jeffrey: But you also have the other voice. So, you said that is a CDC but the US Department of Education has also Full Steam been pushing for the full reopening of public schools. Now, our education secretary Betsy DeVos is threatening to cut off funds to a public school that does not fully open. Now, you mentioned a little bit, you do not understand the political aspect pushing forward, but that is it. It is right here, what is your reaction to that?
Rebecca: First off, secretary DeVos has never been a public school teacher nor have she been a parent of a public school child. Second, she simply does not have the authority to do what she is threatening. Those are congressionally appropriated funds which I have heard you can get into a bit of trouble for misdirecting. Then finally, only about 8% of funding for schools comes from the Federal government. The rest comes from state and local tax levies. So the money that comes from the Federal government supports children with disabilities and supports the national school lunch program. So when millionaires, billionaires like Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump say that they want to cut funding to schools that will not put children in grave risk. What they are saying is that they want to take away food from hungry children and services from disabled children. I do not know how we square that in our heads. I think it is shameful.
Jeffrey: Agreed. Now, let me ask you. From a healthcare point of view as a nurse, as general rule children are infected by the coronavirus that is thought to be at low risk of becoming seriously ill or dying. But, we have seen a number of recent clusters of virus cases around the US being linked to school-related events, whether it be proms after proms, graduations. Can you talk about some of that?
Rebecca: Well, certainly over the summer. We saw some cases especially older kids being linked to graduations and graduation parties in state Louis, in Upstate New York, but more recently just this last week what we have seen is exactly what many of us in healthcare kind of thought would happen if we got children together. So the Cherokee School District in Georgia started last week. School started Monday, a pre-symptomatic child was in attendance. So the child went Monday. Tuesday, symptomatic stayed home, had some testing done, came back positive. Now, as of today, there are four positive children and 60 quarantined in Cherokee School District that started Monday. In Mississippi Corint School District started last week. By Friday, there was one sick, High school student. Today, six tested positives and a hundred sixteen students are quarantined. This idea that children do not get sick, first as a fallacy. We know that children have gotten sick and have died morally, responsibly, and globally in March. We took children out of the equation by setting them home to relative safety. As we send more children back into the classroom, back into these centers of high transmission, I think we are going to see more sick children, unfortunately. Even if we do not, we know that children can spread the virus. We have a recent study out of South Korea that shows that children over 10 are at least as likely to spread as adults. Children under 10 are still able to spread. So no child is an island. We do not have schools full of children that go home and live with other children and are taught by other children. What we have, our adult staff teachers and parents that go to their work, go to their shopping center, go to their medical appointments in our community. Communities that have high spread certainly anytime we gather a large group of people whether they are two or a hundred years old. We are at risk of transmission. It is just math. It is just Math, it is not a motion. It is just Math.
Jeffrey: It is Math and Science, exactly.
Jeffrey: You touched on this before but I want to bring it up again and get your thought on it. St. Andrew’s Episcopal School is a private school in Washington DC, in the Maryland suburbs. They just sent out a letter to parents that it was still deciding whether to adopt a hybrid model for the fall or allow a limited in-person education or to resume holding all classes completely online as was done in the spring. They just decided to hold all classes online from what I understand. The reason why we are bringing that up is that the president’s son attends the school so he will most likely be attending classes online because of the health issues raised. What is your take on this?
Rebecca: I am not sure, I have popular opinion on this. I have seen the hashtags. They have seen the social media Firestorm around this it says, “Send Baron first”, and I do not agree with that. I am a teacher. I am a nurse and I have made a commitment to keeping children safe and healthy and Baron is a child. He is the president’s son and I understand the view of hypocrisy there. I feel it too. But, ultimately at the end of the day, he is a child, his safety matters to me. I applaud a school for making the correct decision regardless of who is in attendance.
Jeffrey: Agreed. That is fantastic. Now, if all schools were to reopen. All right, we got to keep them safe one way to do that is by testing and making sure we isolate those that are testing positive. The problem is, as testing increases the problem is the test results. According to the editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News, he states, “If it takes up to two weeks to get results, we can not detect growing outbreaks and respond with targeted shutdowns. We can not do meaningful contact tracing”. She continues, “One cannon of medical practice is that you order a test only if you can act on the result. With that, with a turnaround time of a week or two, you can not. What we have now is often not testing. It is testing theater”, right? You are just talking about Georgia. Everybody being some people the outbreak happening. Do you share this analysis? Do you think testing is going to help? Do you think it is going to make any difference, right now?
Rebecca: I think that testing, accurate testing, and timely testing will help reduce community transmission, which would make it more likely that a successful start to the school year could happen. Let me just expand on that point. You make a great point of saying how long it takes to get test results back and it can take anywhere from a week to two, those are not very actionable. But it also takes us about five to seven days to have enough antibodies in our system to be tested. If a child at say Cherokee School District, was exposed to another child, they likely would not have enough antibody or enough antigen to be tested, until at least five days. So then we top off another two weeks after that point for them to possibly get the results back. We are talking about 19 days. There is not much we can do, a lot can happen in a school in 19 days. The number of contacts in the community within 19 days could be in the thousands and you have a really widespread Community outbreak that could be traced back to one child. These are super spreading events. Schools are ripe for the picking to be this access point for super spreading events. If we fix our testing crisis in this country, which makes no mistake. It is a crisis no matter what our leaders and government are saying, we actually tested fewer people last week then we did the week before which is not the right direction. If we get testing to be meaningful and actionable and get away from, as you said, testing theater, then we can lower transmission in our community enough to really consider reopening face-to-face instruction on our schools. It should not be the other way around. It should not be, “Well, let us reopen the schools and shore up testing.” We really need to get testing and community transmission in check before we consider sending our children into schools.
Jeffrey: Those are great points. In your New York Times piece, you wrote in a quote, “If I am asked to return to school, I will have to walk away,” and luckily you got the good news. You are going online for remote learning. Were you really prepared to sacrifice your career as a teacher?
Rebecca: Yes, and that is yes. I thought about it. I thought about my own child. Most teachers I know even though our risk honestly of dying in a school shooting is low, it is not zero as we know that many of our colleagues have found themselves in that position. When I go to school I know that there is a risk. I know that I am willing to lose my life to potentially protect a child. What I am not willing to do is throw that child in front of the bullet to check myself. For me, the decision really came down to, “Am I willing to let a child take a virus home that could be deadly to their family member or could be deadly to themselves? Am I willing to allow that to happen because if I do not my loss would be my employment?” The answer was no, I was not willing to use my own child as a shield and I am not willing to use someone else’s as a shield for me to be able to make my car payment. I have had a little pushback from people saying, “Well, she is clearly very privileged if she walks away from her job.” The truth is I will lose a lot but I do not think I could go back into a classroom after attending someone’s virtual funeral knowing that I contributed to that loss of life. I could not do it. I teach about epidemiology. How could I live with something else? I do feel very fortunate that my district seems to be making the correct and moral decision here. But I said what I said, and I meant what I said. If I can not go back safely, I can not go back, not for just myself but for my community.
Jeffrey: I know you are not alone, and I want to thank you. Thank you for your time today and for everything you do for our children. This has been a privilege speaking with you today.
Rebecca: Oh, thank you.
Jeffrey: We hope you enjoyed this week’s podcast. If you have any questions comments, or future story suggestions, please reach out to us on social media. Thank you, and we hope you enjoyed the RP HealthCast.