Teacher deaths and college-town outbreaks deepen concern over COVID-19 risks stirred by school reopenings
School Students (Ina Fassbender AFP)

Rising infections among students and educators as reopenings begin appear to confirm warnings from teachers and parents that schools lack adequate resources to safely restart in-person classes.

New reporting about recent Covid-19-related deaths of public school teachers and a USA Today analysis out Friday showing that college towns are among the nation's top hot spots for large outbreaks are deepening fears about the clear and predicted dangers associated with restarting in-person classes this fall as the virus continues to spread across the United States.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that since the beginning of August, at least six educators in Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Iowa, and Oklahoma have died after testing positive for Covid-19 as their school districts prepared to welcome students back for classes.

"The longer we have to wait for support, the more precarious reopening becomes. It's unfortunate, quite frankly, that as a nation we have now made schools a political football. That is going to have a long-term impact, without a doubt."

—Sonja Santelises, Baltimore City Public Schools

While the Post emphasized that it "isn't clear whether any of the teachers were infected at school, and many quarantined to avoid exposing students and other staff members," the newspaper noted that the deaths "have renewed fears that school campuses will become a breeding ground for the virus, spreading the illness as communities grapple with how to balance the need to educate children with properly addressing the pandemic."

The teacher deaths and growing infections among students and staff members in the early stages of the reopening process appear to add weight to vocal warnings from educators, parents, and union leaders that schools lack adequate funding, equipment, time, and support from state and federal policymakers to safely begin in-person classes amid the deadly pandemic.

Despite ongoing pleas from local officials, Congress has not passed any additional relief funds for the nation's public schools since March.

"The longer we have to wait for support, the more precarious reopening becomes," Sonja Santelises, the chief executive of the Baltimore public school system, said last month. "It's unfortunate, quite frankly, that as a nation we have now made schools a political football. That is going to have a long-term impact, without a doubt."

According to the Post:

Some districts have... been struggling to comply with quarantine requirements as staff and students test positive for the virus. Two days after children returned to classes in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, school district officials confirmed special education teacher Teresa Horn, 62, died on Aug. 28 from a heart attack after testing positive for the coronavirus...

Tahlequah Public Schools sent students home for two days of virtual classes following Horn's death. In a little over a week since, the district has reported at least eight students and staff members have tested positive and dozens have been forced to quarantine after possible exposure to the virus at school.

Reporting on the recent deaths of schoolteachers came just 24 hours before USA Today on Friday released an analysis that found "communities heavy with college students" account for 19 of the top 25 coronavirus hot-spots in the nation, heightening concerns that campus outbreaks could be impacting entire cities.

"Oxford is both a college town and a place where people come to retire," USA Today noted. "In the past month... 26 residents at a local veterans' home have died in connection to the coronavirus."

The college-town outbreaks "span the map from Georgia Southern University to the University of North Dakota, from Virginia Tech to Central Texas College," USA Today reported. "In some of the college towns, like Pullman, Washington, home to Washington State, students aren't even taking classes in person, yet are still crowding apartments and filling local bars."

The student-heavy town with the highest number of positive cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, according to USA Today, is Harrisonburg, Virginia, home to James Madison University, which saw infections surge shortly after students began moving back onto campus for in-person classes late last month.

"The college recorded more than 700 Covid-19 cases in one week of class and promptly pivoted to online instruction on September 1," USA Today reported. "In the past two weeks, the case rate per 100,000 residents in Harrisonburg has climbed to 1,562. In late July, that number had been at 71 cases per 100,000."

Earlier this week, graduate student instructors and other staff members at the University of Michigan went on strike over the school's failure to institute adequate protections against the spread of Covid-19 on campus and offer a universal remote work option.

According to the university's Covid-19 dashboard, the campus has recorded 42 positive Covid-19 tests over the last two weeks and 346 since early March.

"The university has refused to listen to us, which is why we've been making noise," said Ph.D. student Kathleen Brown, a member of the University of Michigan's Graduate Employee Organization. "We also know of other folks who are not graduate students, staff members, for instance, who are being pressured to work in-person and this, of course, is dangerous."