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Chaparral 2022-2023: 31.1 Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!

Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!

by Michael Reed
Geography Department

 

Family and friends from outside of GCC often ask me, “What’s going on over there? What’s making that campus so risk adverse and so slow to open back up?” I admit that I don’t fully understand it myself but that I think part of what’s going on is political, even tribal. Calls for the removal of masks in public places and the reopening of schools came first and most aggressively from the far-right wing in American politics. Some absurdly even threatened Dr. Fauci and other health officials, arguing that they were traitors or communists who simply wanted people to follow rules. This was obviously nonsense. Huge numbers of Americans suffered and died because of this horrific disease, especially in that first year when it was poorly understood and there were no vaccines or treatments available. As a result, many of us on the left seem to think that if Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, and Ted Cruz want us to take off our masks in public then, as good liberals, we’d better demand we keep them on until “Covid-19 is over.” One problem, however, is that conditions change and few of us, myself included, are disease experts. More problematic is that the new normal of hundreds of deaths a day in the U.S., mostly among the elderly and unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, is not likely to go away any time soon since vaccine protection fades over time and too many have chosen to remain unvaccinated. Unfortunately, we can do little to protect these folks by our actions at Glendale College. We rarely, if ever, come into direct contact with them – not even the elderly in our own community. Moreover, the virus is being widely transmitted outside of GCC in restaurants, bars, grocery stores, movie theaters, outdoor concerts, and the like. We can’t stop community spread. Instead, I think what we are mostly doing is making teaching less effective, less fun, more frightening, and more difficult and all this with very little health benefit to anyone.

More importantly, no one at Glendale College is qualified to make decisions about masking and vaccines – not even the Board of Trustees. I certainly am not. Only top public health officials, epidemiologists, and virologists have the data, training, and expertise to make such complicated and controversial decisions. And they have spoken. GCC is now more restrictive than Johns Hopkins, Harvard, UCLA, and 96% of K-12 classrooms nationwide. In response to improved disease outcomes, lower levels of hospitalization and death, and new treatments for severe Covid-19 infection, they have all switched to recommendations for masking. These elite institutions are not being reckless. They are following the data and balancing practicality and crisis fatigue with measurable health risks to student and faculty populations. We need to do the same, especially if we are to continue to call for the primacy of science in other issues (education, climate change, air pollution, social policy).

Thus, I believe that GCC's masking and vaccine policies need to be revisited sooner rather than later or, better yet, taken out of the hands of campus constituencies. But again, I'm no public health official and neither is anyone else at GCC. Simply following public health mandates would, if nothing else, reduce faculty and staff infighting. More importantly, it will set the precedent that when conditions change, for better or for worse, we will follow public health guidelines quickly and without prejudice. I’d propose the following: "GCC will follow all Los Angeles County Department of Health guidelines regarding masking and vaccination in public places and will update those policies as conditions change in order to maximize both public health and best practices in education."

As disease conditions change, public health rules need to change. Rigidity in the face of new information is hardly what we should be striving to model to our students. Glendale Unified School District changed its Covid-19 policies in the middle of the spring semester of 2022 when the Centers for Disease control decided that risks to students, their families, and the community had significantly decreased. Their schools have been back for over a year now with no vaccination requirements and masks only during periods of high disease transmission. As far as I can apprehend, this policy is now widely embraced and few teachers there would advocate for a return to masking. I strongly believe that GCC should also strive to get our classrooms back to something like “normal” as soon as is reasonably possible for the sake of our college and for our most vulnerable students. Getting education back on track after so much disruption should also feel like an emergency.

This is not simply lip service on my part. As a father, I’ve struggled with these difficult decisions personally. Back in April of 2021, my youngest daughter was struggling to handle the stresses of this ongoing emergency. My wife and I decided to send her back to school. We concluded that for someone her age, fully vaccinated, any risks were far lower than other risks we take with her every week (though it took some digging through CDC data and talking to our pediatrician to figure this out). Moreover, the risk of keeping her isolated and discouraged had to be weighed too. What my daughter needed most, after a year of nearly complete lockdown, was more human connection, more shared smiles, and more laughter – not a continuing cocoon of excessive protection. And, like my daughter, GCC can't reasonably operate in semi-permanent emergency mode for months or years more to come. It's not good for our mental health. It's not good for education. It’s not good for our bottom line. Though my heart aches for anyone who has lost someone to Covid-19, the fact is that for young healthy people, the risks from Covid-19 are currently exceedingly small. For vaccinated young people, the risks are truly miniscule. In fact, just last week Dr. Ashish Jha, the top White House Covid-19 response coordinator, told NPR that “if you are up-to-date on your vaccines today, and you avail yourself of the treatments, your chances of dying [from] COVID are vanishingly rare and certainly much lower than your risk of getting into trouble with the flu.” Moreover, he was talking about the general population and not about the young, healthy students we primarily see at GCC.

In my science classes, I regularly see students struggle to process the meaning of statistical data. I’ve concluded that it’s not something most of us do very well. We are too easily led astray by our emotions and by compelling stories. Numbers and ratios, especially large numbers, are cold and lifeless. We struggle to process per capita data and instead focus on total number or individual tragedies. We overemphasize risks that frighten us or that create drama in the media (violent crime, death by rare disease, airplane crashes) but we grossly underestimate the risks of common behaviors with which we are more familiar (drinking alcohol, driving to work, eating processed foods). For example, when students find out I surf, they often ask, “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” They are more impressed by news of a death by shark bite anywhere in the world than they are by the overwhelming evidence that virtually no one dies of shark attack. In fact, only thirteen people have been killed by sharks in California since 1952 and no more than thirty have been killed by sharks in the history of our state. Still, most continue to be terrified by sharks, and many choose never to swim in the ocean. In short, I think we are often telling ourselves the wrong stories. With Covid-19, many people early on internalized simple storylines to make sense of the crisis and protect their families. They said that “Covid-19 is deadly” or that “even kids are dying” or that “we have to be safe until the pandemic is over.” All of these are true, to a degree, but largely obscure the more important revelations that Covid-19 is much less deadly than it once was, that young and healthy people face very low risk of Covid-19 or Long Covid, that small numbers of mostly elderly people will continue to die for years or even decades to come no matter what we do, and that this pandemic is unlikely to ever truly be over. It will just cease to be an emergency.

On these points, a review of relevant recent data can help. The following chart is from the CDC during the massive Omicron wave in March 2022 (published by Scientific American in June 2022). It breaks down deaths by age and vaccination status. A quick look shows that young people were at extremely low risk in this wave, especially if vaccinated. Deaths among those under 50 who were vaccinated and boosted happened at a rate of less than .01 per 100,000. That’s less than a 20th of the car crash deaths in this country each week (about 2 per 100,000). Note that even the unvaccinated under 50 died at very low rates.

Image from Scientific American. June, 2022.

Image from Scientific American. June, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-compare-covid-deaths-for-vaccinated-and-unvaccinated-people/

Even more telling when it comes to risks for younger people is this next graphic that was published by Vox in 2021. It shows the relative risks faced by children under 18 in the period before vaccines were available. This comparison helped us to decide to send our daughters back out into the world reassured that they would be very safe. Granted our GCC students are older than these kids but generally not by very much. Risks increase with age but don’t significantly change until over the age of 50.

Image from Vox.com

Image from Vox.com. https://www.vox.com/22699019/covid-19-children-kids-risk-hospitalization-death

More recent data from this summer in California (see below) confirms very low rates of death from the disease across all age groups and profound benefits from vaccination. The California Covid-19 dashboard shows a death rate in July in California among all ages of vaccinated people of between .3 to .7 per million people per week (or .03 to .07 per 100,000). For comparison's sake, the U.S. weekly automobile death rate is at least three times as high (2 per million per week; or .2 per 100,000 per week or 11.2 per 100,000 per year). But that last figure includes all those who don't drive so the actual rate of driver death is much, much higher. Moreover, these figures are for all ages. This means that death rates for those under 50 were likely exponentially lower. And it doesn’t break out the boosted who must have had much lower risk from those who were simply vaccinated. In short, very few people, and almost no young people are facing much risk right now.

Image from California State Covid-19

Image from California State Covid-19 Dashboard: https://covid19.ca.gov/state-dashboard/

So, I say we should keep the vaccine mandate (or not) but drop the mask mandate (please). But then, as I’ve argued, I shouldn’t get to decide. Nor should anyone else at Glendale College. Instead, let’s turn these decisions over to the relevant health authorities and allow our young people get on with the business of going to college, making friends, and firing up their dreams.

Michael Reed
Associate Professor of Geography

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